The Washington Post

Burtonsville native has big-screen dreams

When Burtonsville native Mark Blackman was 13, he made a stop-motion “Claymation” video for his bar mitzvah.

When Blackman was 27, he had written, directed and produced his own feature-length film.

Blackman’s film, “Welcome to Harlem,” is a musical comedy based on his own move to the New York neighborhood several years ago.

Blackman traded in a life working for a headhunting firm, which scouts and recruits employees for companies, to dedicate his time to stand-up comedy and writing.

In the movie, Blackman said, he wanted to capture his community and the group of friends he made in his apartment building.

“Everyone is so happy and friendly and welcoming and warm,” Blackman said. “I was like, ‘Wow, let’s write about this.’ It sort of seemed like what I was thinking and feeling.”

The plot follows a cast of nine characters loosely based on Blackman’s neighbors. There are two love stories and different kinds of music, including orchestral scores and musical theater songs, Blackman said.

Blackman moved to New York in October 2006 after graduating from Cornell University with a degree in engineering.

“It was really, really hard and stressful,” Blackman said. “I was sitting there busting it for something I didn’t really care about.”

Blackman got a job with a headhunting firm. At night, he started doing stand-up comedy about three times per week.

He lost the job at the headhunting company within a year and decided to concentrate on his true passion: comedy.

Blackman needed a more affordable place to live and found a listing in Harlem on the online classified ads in Craigslist.

“I thought, ‘OK, this is where I would like to live,’ without thinking much about it,” Blackman said.

He quickly fell in love with the place.

“You know your neighbors, you walk outside and people say hello,” Blackman said.

A couple of months after moving to Harlem, a historically African American neighborhood known as an artistic haven, Blackman started writing the movie script, which he worked on casually for a year. Once it was done, he approached the same friends who had inspired him to write to help him make the movie.

One of his friends in another apartment in his building started working on the film’s music. His roommate had a background in musical theater, and a friend across the street became a cinematographer.

The group started storyboarding, creating the music, raising money and holding auditions.

Blackman’s dad, Richard Blackman, 60, of Burtonsville, said he fell in love with the music before the movie was even finished.

“We couldn’t stop listening to it,” Richard said. “We had to listen to it over and over again, and we thought, ‘This is going to be great.’ ”

Mark Blackman and his crew shot the movie over six weeks in the spring, describing it as a crash course in moviemaking.

“It’s certainly a lot of improvising,” Mark said.

The cast and crew worked around the clock six days a week, shooting around their neighborhood, in their apartment building and parks.

“It was crazy,” Mark said. “It was an adventure every day.”

Nadia Ally, 28, originally of Potomac, worked as the production coordinator.

Ally had moved to New York for similar reasons as Mark. She had sought a new life and artistic outlook, she said. Ally also moved into Mark’s building, and within a few months was helping him make the film.

During production, Ally cooked food for 18 to 25 people daily. She did makeup. She scheduled production. She scouted locations.

“We all lived together and worked together,” Ally said. “It really was challenging. We are friends, and it tested that a little bit.”

It took a few months to edit the film, and it premiered in November at Harlem’s Apollo Theater to a crowd of 700 people, Mark said. It will screen at at the Hoff Theater at the University of Maryland at College Park on Feb. 25.

Blackman is submitting the movie to film festivals and hopes to eventually get it commercially distributed.

“Every time I watch it, there’s so much behind every single scene that’s going on behind the camera,” Ally said. “I love it. I love watching the film. I love sharing it with people. I believe in it.”


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