Director Michael Larnell has returned to the Sundance Film Festival this season with his second feature, Roxanne Roxanne. The pic starring newly minted Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali, Nia Long, Elvis Nolasco and Chanté Adams in her big-screen debut tells the story of 14-year-old Roxanne Shanté, a fierce teenager from the Queensbridge projects who became the most feared battle MC in early-’80s New York City, hustling the streets and taking the hip-hop world by storm.
The pix is one of the buzziest titles in Park City, resulting in a bidding war eventually won by upstart distributor Neon which is near a deal for $3 million.
“I play Roxanne Shanté from the age of 14 up to about 18. I had about a week and a half between the moment I was cast to our first day of shooting, so I went that time, hours each day, just researching her on the Internet, watching video interviews and her performances, reading articles, anything that I could get my hands on about her that would bring me closer to the character,” Adams told me at Deadline’s Sundance Studio, describing her process in acclimating to the film world.
“Michael had a few rehearsals prior to shooting, just to transition me from the theater world to the camera world, because it was my first film. We met with Shanté for a second, and that was amazing, and I studied her as much as I possibly could, just so I could bring that to the character.”
Of course, in bringing Roxanne Roxanne to the screen, a chief concern was getting the music right, which Larnell accomplished with the help of rapper and record producer RZA. “RZA is the man. He’s cool, man. It was great. I met with him several times, and went to different houses of his and just sat down with him and talked about what I had in mind for the music,” said Larnell, who came to Sundance in 2015 with Cronies, his feature debut from executive producer Spike Lee. “[RZA] brought different beats and different tones, and different drum machines of the era that we played with to give it a feel.”
With Lee as a collaborator on Cronies and Forest Whitaker along with Oscar Best Picture nominees Pharrell Williams and Mimi Valdes of Hidden Figures coming on as producers of Roxanne Roxanne, Larnell has no shortage of A-list mentors who have helped shepherd his films. “It’s been surreal because I didn’t get into this film until later in my 20s, so just to get these guys on board was amazing,” he said.
To hear more from Larnell and Adams, check out Deadline’s video exclusive above.