- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2001

In person, Mark Brown strikes one as the polar opposite of a "player," but the D.C. native knows precisely how they operate.The soft-spoken filmmaker wrote 1997's "How to Be a Player," a ribald farce starring Bill Bellamy as a young man with a string of ladies at his disposal, and now he makes his directorial debut with "Two Can Play That Game," which opened last Friday. "Game," which he also wrote, depicts the games people play to keep their lovers from straying.

So how does the 34-year-old know so much about the dating world? He says he got all the inspiration he needed from his ties to an ex-girlfriend and from watching his sister wrestle with relationships.

"Game" tackles amour from the vantage point of successful businesswoman Shante Smith (Vivica A. Fox of 1997's "Soul Food"), who manipulates her boyfriend, played by Morris Chestnut, to keep their romance intact.

"I wanted to portray a woman in control," Mr. Brown says during a promotional visit to his hometown last week. "When you see women in control, you think of them as masculine or aggressive."

Casting the voluptuous Miss Fox solved that problem.

The studio initially didn't agree with how Shante's story unfolds — she lets the audience know of her plans by talking directly at the screen. Even with a sound sense of how to portray romantic squabbles, Mr. Brown found his conceit wasn't an easy sell with the studio heads.

A few movie characters have spoken directly to audiences over the years, but it is a rarely used cinematic device. Mr. Brown knew, however, that his gambit might pay dividends.

"She treats the audience as one of her girlfriends," says Mr. Brown, who is dressed in baggy black jeans and wears his hair in loose cornrows. "Urban audiences talk back at the screen. I wanted to encourage that."

His heroine still might not sit well with the fellas, though.

"From a guy's perspective, they have more of a problem with her," he says.

"The male ego is very fragile," he adds, his voice stammering slightly as he hunts down the right words. "We get concerned when confronted with something like that."

He coaxed his actors to discuss the material between shooting scenes and add whatever nuances they thought might improve the script.

"You may actually capture lightning in a bottle," he says of the collaborative effort. "We did, with some of Anthony Anderson's (Tony) and Mo'Nique's (Deidre) lines."

Mr. Brown's career may be an exercise in pragmatism, but his new film is a cautionary tale of just why that approach doesn't work in romance.

"You can't control a relationship through rules and games," says Mr. Brown, who is single.

The sharp-eyed director is a budding player in Hollywood circles, but he didn't start out with such cinematic intentions.

He planned to enroll in medical school but ended up spending two years modeling and acting, including stints on Fox television's "Martin" and CBS' "The Young & the Restless."

In 1996, Mr. Brown and a friend challenged each other to write a movie about their respective adventures in dating. His friend went off to write "Booty Call," while Mr. Brown penned "How to Be a Player," which briefly had Chris Tucker of "Rush Hour" attached to star.

The experience gave Mr. Brown an instant lesson in Hollywood politics.

"When I wrote it, it was PG-13," he says of the film. "It ended up R much to the disappointment of my friends."

"So few projects get through the system," he continues. "You decide you want to get more control." Being a writer for hire, he determined, just wouldn't do.

"As a writer, you pass the baton to the director," he says. "It's like a mother giving birth to a child, then giving it to someone else to raise," he says of the feeling he got handing over his first script to a director.

He signed on for directing classes at the American Film Institute in California, using money he earned as a script doctor. He later directed a short film, dubbed "Family Jackson," which he describes as "a black Dennis the Menace," for producers to peruse.

The short featured the same director of photography as the well-received "Soul Food," which lent the film a polished sheen.

"It looked great, and I got a deal," Mr. Brown says simply of how "Game" came into existence.

• • •

"Two Can Play That Game" is the first feature from Mr. Brown's new C4 Pictures production company, launched last year to promote black-produced films and music.

Mr. Brown is writing and producing "Barber Shop," a comedy set in Compton, Calif., and he co-wrote the upcoming "Juwanna Mann," also featuring Miss Fox, about a professional basketball player who cross dresses to break a WNBA roster.

He cites such disparate directorial influences as the Wachowski brothers (1996's "Bound," 1999's "TheMatrix") and teen angst kingJohn Hughes, who wrote and directed 1986's "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

The lightning pace of his current film can't be tied to just those directors, though.

"We live in an MTV-BET age. The concentration levels [of audiences] today are so short," he says. "I wanted to take them on a ride and not let them think about it until the end."

The young director has his own reservoir of energy from which to tap.

"The key is persistence. I got fired from the 'Martin' show. I got fired from the first project I wrote. You take that energy, you use it," he says.

He wouldn't mind corralling that enthusiasm for a homegrown project.

"D.C. has always been home, ultimately" the Los Angeles resident says. "I haven't figured out how to live in D.C. and do the Hollywood thing."

He dreams of shooting a movie centered on the Georgetown Four Seasons Hotel. "There would be nothing more gratifying than to come here and bring a whole crew and cast," he says.

Mr. Brown might have started his moviemaking life on a whim, but his spiritually strong parents forced his creative hand.

"On Friday afternoon, they cut off the TV midshow," he says of his childhood viewing time, typically interrupted for prayer. "We had to figure out the endings of the shows."

Now his parents can see the fruits of their son's creativity at many local theaters.

"My parents have never been to the movies," he says. "They're somewhat torn now," he says with a laugh.

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