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US director Rhyan LaMarr. Image Credit: Supplied

The word ‘passion’ springs to mind when listening to Rhyan LaMarr talk about his upcoming movie ‘North of the 10’. The American director and writer, best known for helming the 2018 indie drama ‘Canal Street’, was in the UAE filming parts of the comedy-drama that traces the journey of five friends who are trying to make it big at the start of the social media influencer wave.

LaMarr cast people who are social media influencers themselves to play the lead roles, including model Don Benjamin, actor DeStorm Power and social media personality Adam Waheed. According to a statement, the movie will also feature cameos by musician Chance The Rapper and actors Terrence J and Samer Al Masry. The film will be set in Chicago, where the director is from, with some parts shot in the UAE.

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But what does ‘North of the 10’ mean?

“North of the 10 is a freeway in Hollywood, California. If you live in LA and you’re trying to get to Hollywood you try to go up the North of the 10,” LaMarr said in a phone interview with Gulf News at the end of May as he sat in a car headed to Abu Dhabi.

“That’s the literal meaning of it. But the movie is about chasing your dreams into Hollywood. North of the 10 is a state of mind not a physical thing,” he added. “Everyone’s trying to get the North of the 10, no matter if you’re in the UAE, in Chicago or in New York, everybody is trying to get North of the 10 — which means that everybody is chasing their dream.”

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Actor Don Benjamin. Image Credit: Supplied

LaMarr is the latest in a long line of filmmakers who’ve come to the country to shoot their movies. Other projects that have made use of the varied landscape of deserts and modern skyscapes here include Hollywood flicks ‘Mission: Impossible’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Dune’ and Bollywood blockbusters ‘Happy New Year’ and ‘Dabangg’.

“It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world,” LaMarr said about the UAE, explaining why he wanted to shoot part of his film here.

“I’m from the south side of Chicago… When it comes to creating a movie like this, we really wanted to step out of the box and create something so people could go literally from the south side of Chicago to one of the most beautiful places in the world,” he said. “And that’s what we did. At the end of the day, if you’re gonna shoot for the stars you might as well shoot for the stars.”

Rise of social media

Social media is admittedly a massive part of the daily lives of millions across the globe, and the rise of influencers has changed the landscape of pop culture, music, sports and more. But LaMarr didn’t want to focus on the TikTok stars of today.

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Actor Matt Rife is also part of the cast. Image Credit: Supplied

Asked why he wanted to centre the movie on the early social media world LaMarr said: “Because it’s the beginning.”

“You have these individuals who are trying to make it and be something in their careers and their lives, stumble upon something,” he said about the characters in the movie. “They stumbled upon influencing the entire world just by having the door closed on their faces a million times... they ended up creating something they didn’t even know they were creating.”

LaMarr sees influencers today as game changers who rival big Hollywood stars.

“They’re people that play to a different tune and are unapologetically influencing [others],” he said, “They inspire. Ten or 20 years ago you looked up to Tom Cruise or Will Smith; today they’re looking up to DeStorm [Power], Don Benjamin and King Bach. It’s a different world we live in. We didn’t have Instagram and Facebook and Twitch and Twitter on our phone. We used our phone to call people, now you use your phone to say ‘what should I wear today’?”

Being inspired

The director hopes that ‘North of 10’ will propel audiences to look — as he says — in their own backyards for creative inspiration.

“A lot of times people are trying to get out and go all over the world… [but] you have everything already inside you to make it,” he said. “Whether that’s wisdom, networking, strength, endurance, your personality. Everything that drives you to make it is already inside you. What I want people to walk away [with after watching the film] is that it takes a team to succeed, but it also takes confidence and self-awareness to motivate yourself to win.”

LaMarr is brimming with ideas and positivity about his work and the future, and he knows those are some of the qualities he needs to succeed in the world as a Black man.

“Being a Black man in the world, there’s a system that’s designed for you to fail. But you learn you can step out of that system to create and beat the system,” the filmmaker said. “That becomes a super power as a Black man, it’s your super power to walk in the room and be looked at a different way. You take that to empower yourself not to discourage yourself.”

He said he’s proud of his heritage and that “being special enables you to create things that the normal person wouldn’t be able to tap into.” It’s also one of the reasons why he was appreciative of the UAE’s cultural diversity.

“I’m just proud to be able to work amongst different cultures, races and beliefs. Which is what I love about the UAE. It’s a group of individuals that are under one roof coexisting together and I think that that’s beautiful,” he said.

New side of Chicago

LaMarr also hopes that his movie can change the gritty image of his hometown of Chicago.

“If you hear about Chicago you think of violence and gang activity, you think corruption. I might catch some flak for this, but I think Chicago is the greatest city on the planet,” he said. “You see Chicago portrayed in the media, TV and film, and all you see is cops, grittiness, murder, gang life… but there are other stories.”

The filmmaker, who is also a musician and director of music videos, admitted that it’s been difficult to work on movies during the pandemic but says it’s all in a day’s work for him and his Red Guerrilla Entertainment team.

“I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been tough on a personal level. Being in a world where people are dying and there’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “From a professional standpoint, we’ve always kinda been out of the box and independent. So if you have a creative [person] and you say here’s a new task that you have to do [during a pandemic], it actually becomes a great challenge. So we were able to succeed.”

“It’s not like we started now raising funds and putting this idea together. We’ve been working on this for the past 3 years. So now you this happen during the pandemic but we had already planned to get this going,” LaMarr added.

‘North of the 10’ has been a long time in the making and he says the essence of the story is rising above struggles — such as the ones he has himself faced.

“This is loosely based off of everyone I know personally, from down to Don Benjamin, the main actor, who lived in a one bedroom house with five of his friends trying to make it, to myself being homeless to Elijah being homeless as well,” he said. “We have been putting this story together from our humble beginnings in our careers to where we are now. It’s almost like art imitating life.”

Never-say-die attitude

Asked what he’s most excited about for the future of the film and LaMarr again circles back to offering up inspiration to the world through his never-say-die attitude.

“I’m excited to create something outside the box that the world will be able to experience,” he said. “There are many people who would say ‘just keep it in Chicago and go get some B-roll. Do you really have to fly all the way to the UAE? Are you crazy?’ But when you do it and you do it well enough you have other people that get inspired by that and being like — ‘but Red Guerilla did it’.”

It wasn’t easy filming for ‘North of the 10’ during the UAE summer and LaMarr spoke about the challenges associated with being in a new location.

“Every step of the way we’re looking at beautiful locations in the UAE and being like this is going to be amazing but you’re shooting in one of the hottest months, you’re bringing a crew and a cast over to another country where 90 per cent of them have never been and you have to shoot the end of your movie and you don’t have the means to shoot it again,” he said. “Some people can feel a lot of pressure and some people like us will be like OK cool it’s gonna be tough but it’s nothing different from what we’ve already done.”

“This is the sauce that inspires the taste buds when people are listening,” he added. “You make these films and create these behind the scenes stories to sit on panels later and motivate people to do better than you.”