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Freeze-frame
Ten years after Roxbury filmmaker Robert Patton-Spruill directed his critically acclaimed film Squeeze, he’s finally back behind the camera. Will it be worth the wait? Does it even matter?
BY CAMILLE DODERO

A roxbury kitchen on a Thursday afternoon. The cluttered room seems trapped in a freeze-frame: flour dusts an island countertop, greasy pans congeal on the stove, old coffee grows bitter on a burner. Against a far wall, half-empty wine bottles, mostly in the 10-dollar range, line the mantel of a brick-clogged fireplace. Above them, a deep-hued portrait of Jesus praying to the heavens presides over the room.

"God help us," gasps Jackson, one of two suit-jacketed police detectives standing aghast in a doorway. A uniformed beat cop solemnly carries an unconscious five-year-old girl in a pink dress out of the room. In the middle of the kitchen, a sixtysomething man wearing rumpled green sweatpants, an open maroon bathrobe, and a dirty wife beater is slumped over in his seat. His neck is sliced, coagulated blood staining his undershirt like a grisly bib. Jackson recognizes him as Charlie Mumbles, a mush-mouthed ex-con. "Sergeant, have you called forensics?"

"They’re about eight minutes out," says McCoy, a somber cop with Clint Eastwood–like features.

This is Jackson and McCoy’s second murder scene in as many days. Last night, the investigators discovered the bullet-riddled bodies of two drug-runners in a derelict building. But even that didn’t prepare them for this: gathered around the kitchen table are the corpses of three lingerie-clad hookers. Thin white ropes bind them to their chairs. Plastic bags cover their heads like transparent death masks.

Jackson tiptoes over to examine one of the prostitutes, a curly-haired woman in black heels spiky enough to kill a vampire. He peers through the plastic with one rubber-gloved hand.

She twitches.

"Sorry," she peeps from underneath the plastic.

Jackson and McCoy laugh. Someone yells, "Cut!" Crew members outside the frame poke their heads up to see what happened. Cackles come from the next room. When a dead body comes alive on a film set, it’s not rigor mortis — it’s a special feature for a DVD.

It’s Day 10 of 27 on the set of Turntable: A Trip-Hop Odyssey, the product of local filmmaker Robert Patton-Spruill’s long-awaited return to the director’s chair. The residential setting of the quadruple homicide isn’t some fleabag flophouse, but the director’s Fort Hill home.

Patton-Spruill, 35, first established himself as a cinematic wunderkind with his 1997 directorial debut, Squeeze, which Miramax bought for $1 million. But the Boston University graduate got his big Hollywood break when, at 25, he was tapped to direct Body Count, an art-heist-gone-wrong picture starring Ving Rhames, David Caruso, and John Leguizamo. It came out in 1998 and went straight to ... video.

The true test of a man, they say, is not how he handles success, but how he handles failure. And handle it Patton-Spruill did: in the late ’90s, he and his wife, Patti Moreno, Turntable’s co-producer, brought their Body Count earnings back to Boston, and set out to build their own independent film studio. In 2000, they opened FilmShack, Inc., a production-equipment-rental business and low-budget studio in Roxbury that, through sliding-scale prices, caters to under-financed moviemakers. With FilmShack, Patton-Spruill is one of the only people in Boston opening doors for culturally diverse actors, filmmakers, production assistants, and makeup artists; indeed, the mere existence of the company encourages auteurs with empty pockets and big-screen dreams.

It’s been 10 years since Patton-Spruill shot Squeeze. "Everyone has this image that I was just sitting on the couch, smoking a joint [for the last decade]," he says. "I had to build a company. To do what I want to, it needs to be sustainable. If you can keep the budgets low enough, you can pretty much guarantee success from a financial standpoint, and thus create sustainability. It took 10 years to put that shit together."

The man who has called himself "Boston’s only studio head" is an approachable, unassuming figure. A light-skinned African-American with thick, wavy hair, a director’s paunch, and a patchy goatee, Robert Patton-Spruill is inconspicuous on his set, stuffing his hands in his pockets or folding his arms across his stomach as he watches a small black-and-white monitor airing a live camera feed. For two days during this project, he’s dressed in a wrinkled white T-shirt and jeans bunched at the ankles. Another day, shooting interior scenes, he wears dark sunglasses, a blazer, and a faded black shirt that reads EDUCATED BLACK MAN.

Patton-Spruill really wanted to be a rock star. He wanted to be in a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. "I used to wear a guitar really well. Now that I’m old, my belly pushes it out too far. "

His parents, actor and Boston University professor James Spruill and Lynda Patton, are stage performers, so he was a showbiz kid. "If there was a play and they needed a kid, there was no, ‘Do you wanna be in the play, son?’ It was like" — he assumes a deeper, fatherly voice — "‘Okay, here’s the kid.’"

But he wasn’t really into it. "It’s like if your parents owned a carpet store, guaranteed you’re going to know a shitload about carpet whether you go into the business or not. The next thing you know, you’re sitting there saying, ‘Well, the plush carpet’s much better on the toes than this commercial grain.’"

A self-described nerd at Brookline High School, where he played basketball with Roger Dodger director Dylan Kidd, Patton-Spruill grew up in Boston’s less desirable environs in the ’70s and ’80s, when Washington Street was still a string of seamy crack houses. Since he looks like he could be Hispanic, the black kids in his neighborhood hassled him for being too pale; the white kids in Southie pushed him around for being too swarthy.

He was only 24 when he shot Squeeze on a measly $155,000 budget. Patton-Spruill wrote the script when he was still enrolled in film school at Boston University, and developed it over the course of three years, while also volunteering as an after-school acting teacher at Dorchester Youth Collaborative. He taught the kids who ended up starring in the movie.

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Issue Date: September 10 - 16, 2004
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