Fort Worth, Texas – When I was a little girl, I used to write scripts and either perform them with my dolls or with my sister and friends on the street,” said Chyna Robinson.
Many filmmakers I’ve profiled over the years have recommended that aspiring filmmakers starting up just pick up the camera and shoot something. However, Robinson says that’s exactly the thing not to do.
“Do as much research as you can,” she said. “If you don’t have the money, log onto free courses. You can learn so much on YouTube. It’s like anything else. You need to know what you’re doing.”
This approach now has the Fort Worth native preparing to show her new feature film, No Ordinary Love, at the Coyote Drive-In this weekend. The drama about a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with a police officer comes to us after screening at a virtual version of the American Black Film Festival (normally held in Miami Beach) and winning an audience award at the Bronzelens Film Festival based in Atlanta. In keeping with the subject matter, the proceeds from the screening will benefit SafeHaven.
Robinson was born in the southwest part of the city — she gives her age as “I’ve been legal for a few years now” — and attended Southwest High School, though she has lived in Keller since 2012. She attended TCU with a double major in film and English. Despite her degree, she concentrated her efforts on theater after her graduation, creating dinner theater murder mysteries at the Buttons restaurant locations in Fort Worth and Addison.
“Most people think of murder mysteries as cheesy shows without a script,” she said. “I had a full script with lots of improvisation. We sold out every show for the run.”
Touring as an actor in Oklahoma gave her the idea for her first short film, Greenwood, which is set in a single home during the 1921 Tulsa massacre of the city’s Black population.
“They say, ‘Don’t do a historical film for your first movie,’ because it’s expensive, but that’s what I did,” she said.
She used Zillow to find a house on Rosedale Street to shoot in and found antique props and costumes in thrift stores, as well as a donation from an 84-year-old friend. The funding came from the money she had earned from her theater work, and while a broken leg caused her to miss much of the short’s run at film festivals, Greenwood (which can currently be seen for free on YouTube) won a prize for the best film by a first-time director at the Pan African Film Festival in Cannes.
No Ordinary Love was also shot in Fort Worth, using locations such as Sundance Square, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, the Petroleum Club, One Safe Place, and UNT Medical Center. While she won’t disclose monetary figures, Robinson said she enjoyed the luxury of a bigger budget, thanks to private funding without corporate sponsors or investors. She also had a greater range of tools to work with.
“My husband bought me a drone the year before,” she said. “We had to hire someone to do drone work over Sundance Square. You need special permits.”
While researching the script, Robinson was surprised to find out that police officers, airline pilots, and physicians are most likely to abuse their domestic partners. “Abuse is about power,” she said. “These people hold lives in their hands. With police [as a character in the film], I was able to introduce weapons into the story.”
She talked extensively with abused women and, without using specific details of their lives, mined their stories for emotional nuances to explain why a woman might be hesitant to leave such a relationship.
Making the leap from a short film to a feature proved a challenge for Robinson, whose weeks-long shoot, she said, threw off her eating and sleeping schedules.
“The filming is taxing physically and emotionally,” she said. “I get home as director and producer, I have to make sure that everything is ready for tomorrow and go over everything from today. I was drained, but it was such an exhilarating experience.”
The experience has proved to be worth it. In addition to its awards, the film has received raves from people who saw it in festivals last year, with fans writing on the Internet Movie Database: “Such a powerful feature” and “The subject matter is upsetting but deftly handled by a director who I am going to keep my eye on.”
While Robinson was full of praise for the people she worked with during and after the production, she also ran into local difficulties.
“The film community here is a boys’ club,” she said. “No one ever told me that I should do something else, but I was able to see through experience that it’s much harder to get funding. Different companies in the area would be less willing to work with us.”
Screenings like the one at Coyote Drive-In will help her determine what she wants distribution for her film to be like during these uncertain times for theatrical films. (Nationally, drive-in theaters have become more enterprising in what they show, the pandemic having contributed to an uptick in their business. The Coyote is also showing a performance by Texas Ballet Theatre this week and last August screened Derek Presley’s thriller Whitetail.) Robinson says that the coronavirus pandemic is part of the urgency to put the film in front of audiences.
“The numbers for domestic violence globally have skyrocketed,” she said, noting that people are trapped inside with abusers and unable to escape. “Nobody’s running to the theater to watch a movie about domestic violence. It was important for me not to write it like a documentary, not to make it heavy the whole way through. I wanted to write it like a romantic thriller. We’ve gotten audience choice awards against stuff that’s now on Netflix and HBO. That means a lot to me as a filmmaker.”