Derrick Borte has managed to forge a career as a writer and director while living and raising a family in Virginia Beach. In late 2016, Borte, a graduate of First Colonial High School and Old Dominion University, released the most high-profile film of his career: London Town, a 1970s period piece in which a teenage boy meets Joe Strummer of The Clash, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. In early December, Borte talked to Distinction about how the movie went down with audiences in London, revealed what it meant to him for the film’s first screening to be held at the Naro Expanded Cinema, and offered hints – and hopes – about his upcoming projects.
The release of London Town was kind of a whirlwind for you. For one thing, you had the premiere of the film in London. How did that go? That … was stressful. [Laughs.] You know, because I just didn’t know what to expect, and I was worried as to how it’d be received. But it was amazing how well it played, and a lot of people who knew the band and were from that era came up to me afterwards and wanted to really personally thank me for the film and tell me how much they liked it. So it got a great response there, and then in Rome we played it to a thousand teenagers at the Rome Film Festival and got a 10-minute ovation afterwards. The movie was really meant for teenagers, so I’m really glad we got to play it there for such a large group of them.
Before London, though, you actually managed to wrangle a screening here in Norfolk for the hometown crowd. Yeah! They wanted to do something with me here, so they managed to fit in a screening at the Naro before I left, and I also did a Q&A. It’s just cool to me to be able to do an opening at the Naro, which has been such a big part of my life as it relates to film. I don’t remember my first trip there, but when I was at ODU, I remember seeing Wings of Desire there and Mystery Train, with Joe Strummer. You know, seeing what was going on at the Naro was just part of my normal routine back then. It was my film school before film school, so it felt good to be able to open the film there before New York, before London, before Rome. I think that’s a really cool thing.
It sounds like you’re happy with the film’s reception. I think people who’ve seen the film without any sort of expectations have really enjoyed it. I think people who went in thinking it was going to be a Clash bio-pic and then realized it’s really kind of geared toward teenagers to introduce them to the Clash catalog, some of them have been … less than satisfied. [Laughs.] It’s a coming-of-age story that not everybody’s going to respond to, so it’s been a little polarizing in terms of the response, but overall it’s been really positive. Hopefully it continues to find an audience. But I’ve heard from friends that their kids are now Clash fans after seeing the movie, and other people have said they wanted to pull out their old records, so it’s been great as far as revitalizing Clash fans as well as introducing and creating new, younger Clash fans. For me, I’ve found the wide-eyed 14-year-old idealist in myself.
In terms of finding an audience, surely the mere fact that you’ve got Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing Joe Strummer will help do the trick on that front. Yeah, he’s got a great following, and … well, look, I think he’s such an amazingly talented guy. I mean, he’s taken on Elvis [Presley in the 2005 miniseries Elvis], and … who did he actually play in Velvet Goldmine? Kind of a combination of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, I think. But playing Joe Strummer was a courageous thing of him to do. He took it very seriously and did his homework, and he’s amazing as Joe.
It’s not an impersonation. It’s his interpretation of Joe, and … it’s interesting that, in the film, Joe is kind of a guardian-angel type to Shay, and I had so many people in London tell me that they’re so glad that we were able to show that side of Joe, that if you were in his circle, he took care of people. He was a good guy, and he was generous. He’d give you the shirt off his back or whatever money was in his pocket. I think people remember him as far more punk than he really was. He was from a well-to-do family. And posters, album covers, and music videos aside, he was actually a thoughtful, generous person, and it was great to have those people who knew him come out and tell me that they were really happy that I was able to show that side of him.
So have you worked out your next project yet, or are you in a position to say? Well, I got hired to write a pilot for The CW, and we’re working out the details on that right now. And then I’ve got a couple of different features that I’m hoping to line up for next year, both of which are actually set in Virginia, so I’m hoping to finally be able to bring a film to Virginia. We have an amazing crew base here, one that I really would put up against anybody anywhere, and the state is trying to do what they can to bring more productions here. I’ve been working with the Virginia Film Office, and I’ve also been working with ODU, so that if I do a film here, hopefully I’ll be able to do something where the students get to be a part of it in some sort of capacity.
Where do things stand with Virginia’s tax incentives? They’re doing the best they can. Inevitably producers or financiers want to go where the best incentives are. The Joneses was the first film to take advantage of [a lucrative Georgia tax incentive program] and now they’ve got on any given day probably a dozen TV shows and a dozen features going on at all times, with a lot of people moving there. Atlanta really has got to be the new Hollywood East, with people following the tax incentives. Hopefully our state is going to continue to try and expand its program. They’ve done a great job with some films and some episodic series recently, and I think Andy Edmunds at the Virginia Film Office is doing a great job trying to bring more productions here.
What, if anything, can you say about the CW pilot? There were rumors swirling for a while about a possible series adaptation of your 2009 film, The Joneses. It’s actually not that. But after working with Gary Fleder – who’s a friend of mine and who’s from here – in trying to develop The Joneses as a series, and working with execs at CW … I mean, The Joneses didn’t work out because the rights holders wanted to do their own thing, but we still all want to do something together, so we’re trying to work out the details on something right now, and hopefully we’ll be going to work early next year on that as well.
Did you and Gary know each other from the area, or did you meet elsewhere? Our families were friends. My grandparents and his parents were friends, and Gary’s always been a great sounding board/mentor for me and always been someone I could call when I needed some advice when I was in uncharted territory. So we’ve been friends for a while, and we’re trying to make something happen on this project together.
So is there any inherent challenge for you when it comes to working in television? You really haven’t done much work for the small screen, have you? The biggest challenge for me is other people’s perceptions that there’s a difference. [Laughs.] Look, production is production. Independent film production is no more luxurious in terms of the pace than any television production. Hopefully I’ll be working in television as well next year. I shadowed Gary on [AMC’s] Turn when he was directing the season premiere last year, and the episodic world has changed so much in the last few years and there’s so much creativity going on there that I hope to be doing something in that world soon. We’ll see!