Leslie Harris bagged a trophy at the Sundance Film Festival that signaled just how far she had come from directing commercials for hair salons. It wasn’t merely that her first feature, Just Another Girl on the IRT, won the Special Jury Prize for Distinction. Nor that the movie — about a young woman coming of age in Brooklyn — was so applauded by festivalgoers that Hollywood heavies danced around her with offers. It was Robert Redford.
”Have you got the pictures?” Harris asked her producer and partner, Erwin Wilson, as they kicked back in the festival’s Park City, Utah, headquarters.
”Check this out,” he said, riffling through a folder of snapshots. There was Harris — the 32-year-old, Cleveland-born woman who had started making IRT with a minuscule $150 grant — standing shoulder to shoulder with Robert Redford. ”He said he was glad to see Just Another Girl in the festival because I was representing another viewpoint,” she said.
For Harris, Redford’s words made it all seem worthwhile — the worry and turmoil involved in turning that $150 grant into the $130,000 required to complete the film, which she shot in 17 days in 1991 and edited in her Brooklyn apartment. Some timely help came from empathetic strangers: Michael Moore, remembering his efforts to make the 1989 Roger & Me, contributed money. And novelist Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale), called in the middle of the night to rave — and offer money. Since then, bigger help has appeared in other guises: Miramax just released her film in New York, United Talent Agency signed her as a client, and the studios have stepped up their courtship.
”I need another phone line,” she says from her home in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. ”I have to get up at 4 a.m. to work on my next script before the phone starts ringing.” She won’t divulge what the script is about, but she will reveal one tidbit: She made 20 copies of her Redford picture, and sent one to her mom in Cleveland. For now, it’s better than an Oscar.