Giants cornerback Walter Thurmond III is a filmmaker
The living room of the sixth-floor Harlem apartment was crammed to the crown molding with people and equipment, all of it moving and making noise. Questions were shouted but never answered. Furniture was pushed across the bare floor. Gear was dragged down a long, dark hallway, forcing its way through the crowd.
It was a cacophony of chaos, the kind of bustle you'd expect on a busy New York City street, not in a few hundred square feet overlooking one.
In the kitchen, Walter Thurmond III settled into a folding chair and put on his headphones. Unlike his surroundings, he was relaxed and still. Focused. Enjoying the craziness that surrounded him. He reached into the refrigerator for a bottle of cold water.
"The storm before the calm," he said. It's his favorite part.
A moment later, silence. Even the portable air conditioner brought in to cool the room was unplugged. The noise and the movement stopped, but the buzz remained heavy in the air. And . . . action!
Yes, they actually yell that on movie sets. It's a command that was spoken several times throughout the day as Thurmond oversaw production of his latest independent film, "Chapter and Verse."
The Giants' newest cornerback, part of a revamped secondary that has become a strength of the defense, is a filmmaker as well, and on this particular Friday, he stopped by the set during a few hours' break from training camp and the preseason.
"Chapter and Verse" is his third film, but it's the first scripted story after a pair of documentaries that are in post-production.
He may be the boss here, wearing the title of executive producer, but he's also a rookie. For director and co-writer Jamal Joseph, a professor of film at Columbia University, this is his 51st film. Lead actress Loretta Devine has been starring on stage and screen since the 1970s. Thurmond is at the top of the hierarchy, but he knows he has plenty to learn from his teammates.
"It's one thing to be able to throw money at a situation, it's another to want to be hands-on and understand everything from a production standpoint as well as directing," Thurmond said. "That's the route I'm taking. They say you can learn more on the set in six months than you do in four years of film school. It really comes down to experience. It's the same thing as football. You get more experience as you are on the field as opposed to sitting on the sideline or watching."
Thurmond said producing and putting together a film crew is similar to building a football team. The producer is like the owner or general manager. The director is the head coach. The actors, the make-up artists, the set designers and the cinematographers are the players.
"It's a complete team effort," Thurmond said. "Not just one person can make the thing be successful. There are a lot of unsung heroes, just like the core guys on special teams. These are the guys who make the whole thing tick and run. It's a tremendous group effort. You need everyone to be dedicated to the project."
A few of the crew members have challenged Thurmond to a race or an arm wrestle after learning about his primary profession, just to see how they stack up against a pro jock. For the most part, though, he is regarded as an auteur, not an athlete.
"Walter has a compassion, an awareness and a sensitivity that's amazing in terms of what he feels for the arts, what he feels for the community, what he feels for human beings," Joseph said as he stood beside Thurmond in a bedroom that is part of the set. "In Africa there was a person called a griot. They're the storyteller who would come and sit in the middle of the village under the tree. They had to be entertaining, but they also had to be inspiring and give you an accurate history. You had to do both. I think Walter approaches storytelling in the spirit of the griot. Films that matter."
This one could. "Chapter and Verse" is about a Harlem man released from prison and trying to save a young student from making the same bad choices that put him behind bars. It's about adjusting to life after prison. It's about a grandmother raising an African-American boy on her own. It's a "tale of two Harlems," of people who can't afford to live in the million-dollar condominiums and eat in the flashy restaurants that are moving into their neighborhood. It's about trying to end the cycle of crime and drugs and imprisonment.
"This film, it's going to be a great piece of entertainment, but it's also talking about an important issue," said lead actor Daniel Beatty.
It's also important to the neighborhood. The building where the majority of the shooting takes place is on 119th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and is part of the Harlem Renewal Project. It houses ex-offenders and their families.
"We're real proud of the story behind the camera," Joseph said. "It's not like a film production that's coming in, doing one or two days in Harlem and then going out because it's a cool location for a TV show where they are arresting a suspect. We're filming 99 percent here."
That theme resonated at every level of production. Outside the building, a tent was set up on the sidewalk. It's where the crew can go between takes to eat and get a drink and wait, and it is staffed by an intern. A young girl rode up on her bicycle, stopped in front of the tent and looked longingly at the cooler. She was just a little younger than the character in the film, the one the protagonists are trying to save. Maybe she faced similar struggles and dynamics, too.
The intern was stuck. The food and drinks were for the crew, not neighborhood kids. Eventually she looked up and down the street before fishing out a bottle of cold red Gatorade and handing it to the passing pedal pusher.
"Don't tell anyone," the intern said. "It's a secret."
Football and show biz
Growing up in California, Thurmond had two passions: movies and football. He went to the University of Oregon to play football and thought he was leaving the other behind. But tearing his ACL in college and then breaking his leg in 2011 as a Seahawk made him start thinking about an exit strategy from the sport.
"This is just one chapter of your life that ends, and you have to open the next chapter," said Thurmond, who turned 27 this week. I'm starting to write that chapter now before my football chapter ends, so it's almost like a prelude into what's coming up with my life."
They've also become just a bit intertwined. While Thurmond signed a one-year, $3.5- million contract with the Giants during the offseason based mostly on football reasons, he did not deny other aspects that drew him here.
"There is so much opportunity in New York," he said, noting the lack of an NFL team in Los Angeles. "Here and the Jets are the only two teams that have a situation set up . . . It was a very welcome situation for sure. It was just a great situation all around and I'm very happy to be here."
The Giants may be known as a stoic, old-fashioned organization in which football is the family business, but they probably are the most Hollywood of any franchise in the league. One co-owner (Steve Tisch) is an acclaimed producer of films and the other (John Mara) is the uncle of actresses Rooney Mara and Kate Mara.
"I love it," Tisch said of having another filmmaker in the Giants' family.
Thurmond and Tisch have had short conversations about their shared interest beyond football and plan to meet next week to discuss it further.
"I will share whatever experiences I've had," Tisch said. "Maybe that sounds like what a mentor does, and if I have the opportunity and he's interested in me being one of his mentors, I would look forward to that very much."
Tisch works on a far different scale than Thurmond. His next production slated for release later this month is "The Equalizer," starring Denzel Washington. But Tisch said he is drawn to Thurmond's hands-on "real hard-core street experience" approach to learning filmmaking.
Despite his family's involvement in one of the nation's most prestigious film schools, the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, Steve Tisch eschewed an academic background in the movie business and dived in headfirst. When Tisch was 27 -- the same age Thurmond is now -- he began his own production company.
"I want to get on his level," Thurmond said of Tisch. "Win a Super Bowl and win an Oscar. He's the only person to do it."
Tisch, who produced Best Picture winner "Forrest Gump" for his Oscar, said he'd be happy to be joined by Thurmond on that exclusive list. On one condition.
Thurmond already won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks last year. Tisch wants another.
"If as a Giant he gets a second Super Bowl ring and hopefully in his career in the entertainment business he gets an Oscar," Tisch said, "I would love it."
'Do it again'
Thurmond isn't ready to thank the Academy just yet. He hasn't even completed his first dramatic movie. Principal photography for "Chapter and Verse" began on July 21, the same day Giants players reported to training camp across the river in New Jersey. The aim is to have a rough cut of the film by September and then hit the festival circuits. Sundance, Cannes, Tribeca. They're held in the spring, but the submission process begins in the fall.
After that, it will be on to the next film. Thurmond already has some ideas.
"When we have a little bit more time when the season starts, hopefully I can get some things written down," Thurmond said. "As far as being able to direct something full length, it would probably have to wait until after my career is done as a football player."
On the day Thurmond visited the set, the crew was filming the tail end of a touching scene. Devine, the lead actress, recounted how her character wound up raising her grandson by herself. She showed Beatty pictures of her husband ("cancer") and her son ("Iraq"). She nailed the simple yet emotionally charged lines, but as Thurmond watched the living room action on a monitor in the kitchen, someone noticed that Devine's hair was not the same as it was earlier.
The hair was fixed. They did the scene again.
"That was beautiful, that was perfect," Joseph said after watching the second take. "Let's do it again."
He turned to his producer.
"Just like a director, right? Never good enough."
"Just like a football coach."