‘Premature’ director Zora Howard talks wanting to make movie about life rather than death

The slow-burn romance Premature hit theaters on February 21st, and IFC held a Q&A with collaborators Rashaad Ernesto Green and Zora Howard to celebrate the opening weekend. The two artists talked about the black experience, living in Harlem, making a film as black artists, and how they create work that has both specific and universal implications. Read on for the highlights of their conversation!

Director Rashaad Ernesto Green has known star and co-writer Zora Howard since she was 12, and they collaborated on his related short film “Premature” when he was in grad school at NYU Tisch. Years later, Zora had a month off from school and Rashaad was ready to start working on a feature film, so they began work on what would become the full length version of Premature. The script was written by the two of them over a period of a few weeks, and shot on a shoestring budget that caused numerous problems in production that required more than a few last-minute changes to things like locations and actors. The result was a film as much informed by the conditions of its creators as the script had been originally. “It’s all part of the art, working around things like that,” remarked Rashaad, about a scene that had originally been set on Coney Island but was shot on the East River.

The two artists talked at length about their methods for collaborating, which mostly happened in the very neighborhood where the film takes place and where they both live. “Zora and I live on the same physical block in Harlem,” Rashaad noted, and the writing for Premature took place within blocks of the locations where it was shot. “Looking out the window, the Harlem was coming into the room as we were writing,” added Zora. The two artists also “watched a lot of films and listened to a lot of music” to get into the headspace to create a story grounded undeniably in the everyday realities of Harlem today. They noted that it was more important than ever to preserve this way of life now, considering that gentrification is threatening the neighborhood more every day.

Zora’s perspective as a woman creator was instrumental, considering that the protagonist is a young woman played by Zora herself. In one of the more political scenes in the film, Isaiah refers to women as “females” and Ayanna’s friend corrects him, making the point that it compares women to animals to call them by such a biological term. Rashaad sheepishly recounted that the scene had actually come from a conversation he had with Zora on the subject. The film was also based on real stories, both of love and heartbreak in each of their pasts and of the everyday lives of the people they knew. The actress who played Ayanna’s mother was also at the Q&A, and she noted that she herself was a single mom. “Sometimes I was reading the script and I just had to put it down for a minute,” she remembered, describing the biting truth she found in the pages.

Those who have seen Premature will be struck by how slice-of-life the film is, and how fairly little actually happens in the lives of many of the characters. Ayanna and Isaiah are both at transitional points in their lives and are discovering a lot about themselves, but their stories are thankfully free of the more harrowing aspects of the black experience that are sometimes made into the center of black narratives in film. The way Zora and Rashaad challenged tropes about black lives and tragedy was to deliberately avoid the outcomes that so often befall black characters. Rashaad noted that when people see the same stories playing themselves out onscreen over and over again, there is an effect on people’s expectations and on their perception of the real world that does not always serve to stop those tragedies from happening.

Paradoxically, one reason Rashaad and Zora did not foreground politics in this film is because of the political statement they were making by not doing so. While Premature often covers politics due to its subject as a story of two young black people living in 21st century Harlem, this film is more about the love story at the center of the plot. “It is enough to hear from a young black woman in the world,” says Zora. Rather than setting these two characters up to meet tragedy in the stereotypical ways that black characters often do in cinema, these two people continue living their lives through the end of the film. While not everything turns out perfectly, there is a healthy mix of good and bad rather than only the bad, a choice that seems to have been very important to both collaborators. As Zora puts it, “we wanted to make a film about life rather than death.”

Another reason the film does not cover a more extreme drama or tragedy is that Rashaad and Zora wanted to be truthful to their own experiences rather than making a statement trying to address the entirety of the black experience. “We just told the truth, we weren’t talking about, how do we make this universal,” noted Rashaad. Zora concurred, saying that giving truth to the characters in this film and to the world they lived in would be enough to give it truth to viewers, even if it did not reflect universal experiences. “I believe the saying is that the more specific you are, the more universal you can be,” noted Rashaad. “For us, this was the most urgent and necessary story to tell,” added Zora.

Premature is in theaters now, including IFC in New York. It is also available on-demand.

Top Photo: Ayanna and Isaiah by the East River.

Middle Photo: Ayanna and Isaiah on the train.

Bottom Photo: Ayanna reinvents herself.

Photo Credit: Mi Alma Films.

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Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
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Contributing Editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto is a journalist and copywriter living in Brooklyn. She's been thrilled to step into an editing role at FF2 after writing as a reviewer for years, so you may see her writing at the bottom of intern's posts as well as in her own pieces! She especially loves writing about queer issues, period pieces, and the technical aspects of films. Some of her favorite FF2 pieces she's written are her review of The Game Changers, her feature on Black Christmas, and her interview with the founders of the Athena Film Festival! You can also find more of her work on her website!
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