A talk with Topper Carew
By Scott Douglas
Topper Carew, age 60, is the founder of Urban Neo, a DVD and CD production company based out of his house in South Portland. Carew is probably best known for creating the television sitcom Martin, starring Martin Lawrence, which went into syndication. Among Urban Neo’s offerings are We Don’t Die: We Multiply, a documentary about deceased stand-up comic Robin Harris; The Fine Art of Frying Chicken, a documentary about a legendary cook for the stars in Los Angeles; and “The Chumbies,” African American characters and puppets for 6- to 9-year-olds.
Carew has degrees in architecture and a Ph.D. in communications. He lectures to film students at institutions ranging from Harvard to Southern Maine Community College. His Web site can be found at urbanneo.com.
The Bollard: Let’s start with how you went from architecture to making movies.
Topper Carew: I went to Howard University in D.C. for architectural school, but quit my senior year. I had been down in Mississippi working on voter registration. When I come back, our senior project was to design an executive mansion for the vice president. I wasn’t feeling that, and I quit. I started practicing architecture on my own as sort of the people’s architect. I went to this think tank in D.C., and they kind of gave me a jump start, which gave me enough guts to get my storefront and be this community architect who had no license. My biggest campaign was saving 70 homes in the Adams Morgan section of D.C. — elderly people about to lose their homes to eminent domain.
Where I had my storefront, kids used to peek in the window all the time. The place had been an old furniture store, an old laundromat, an old church, two brownstones, and it had had a program that taught filmmaking, photography, graphics, creative writing. So I got my start in film by opening the door to these kids. I wanted to find a way to reach teenage boys who weren’t loving school, but might excel and get a great experience with a camera in their hands.
This is in the late ’60s?
Sixty-seven, ’68, and so it sort of opened the door in filmmaking to me, and then I started using it in my architectural work, and I started submitting these films to festivals as a goof, and I started winning festivals. Then my architectural partner went to MIT and was running the urban design department, and my former social worker from Boston was at MIT as a professor, and kept saying, ‘You should come to MIT.’ I finally figured out the second year they asked that they had a film school there. I had three films I was finishing, so I went to finish the movies. I hung out at MIT for a year, a great ride, fully supported.
Then I got offered a job producing television in Boston for WGBH, the PBS station. I’ve always had an ability to raise money, and I raised several million bucks. I was only going to go there for a year, but I had to stay and spend that money, so I stayed for four years, and raised more, just writing proposals.
Then I decided I wanted to do social comedy. I managed to get a fellowship to work for the BBC, and basically hung around London to get a feel for their methodology, how they make drama. Then I went to L.A. and met Norman Lear, who became like a shepherd to me, and I stayed out there until three years ago.
Why are you now living in South Portland?
When I was in L.A., my wife unsuccessfully battled breast cancer, and she succumbed in 2001. We had two kids, and the high school principal was very helpful in helping my kids get through that transition. The principal moved to South Portland.
I was having a horrendous time in the dating universe, because I’d been married for 30 years. I was never good at that anyway. That’s why I was married for so long — it’s easier for me to be married than be out there. And I like that kind of stability, because when I’m locked into a relationship with a good woman, I can do anything. I was catching absolute hell in L.A., because I had a big house, I had a reputation, made some money. I wasn’t a bachelor — I was a widower, which has a higher value. You’re not like used goods. Man, I was running into nightmares out there.
So one of my daughters had come back to Boston for art school. And she kept saying, ‘You know, you should talk to Cornelia.’ She was up here in Portland, running an elementary school called Breakwater. So she’d come down to Boston, I’d come up here, and we developed this relationship. We’d do this long-distance commute — we’d meet in Chicago, we’d meet in New York, we’d meet in Providence, San Francisco, Phoenix. She had a job here and I had the flexibility, and I was getting tired of L.A., so we got married two years ago.
Also, at that time I wanted to make a shift in what I was doing. At this stage of life, it’s about legacy. I’d been in Hollywood making stuff. I decided I had the freedom and the ability to make things that I wanted to do. So part of that experiment is the ability to do everything through the Internet, laptops, cell phones.
Are there challenges that wouldn’t arise if you didn’t live in Maine?
Yes, there are. All of the top guns are in New York and L.A., the guys who keep you sharp. It’s like playing pick-up basketball — if you play with guys who can really play, your game goes up. So I go to L.A., because I still got a bunch of really cool buddies there, and I still relate to talent there. And now I also go to New York and Boston.
What is it about the interaction with them that you need?
It’s like George Clinton and the Funkadelics. His drummer lives in Atlanta, his bass player lives in Detroit, two of his guitar players live in L.A. After you work with somebody for such a long time, you have people who just absolutely know what you’re thinking.
These are fellow producers?
These are all kinds of people — writers, technical people, art people. So I live in Maine, and I have people all over the place that I work with. And we do it through laptops and cellphones. I’m into that challenge. What’s fascinating is we’re trying to distribute our product from here. Everybody says, ‘Where are you?’ and if you say, ‘Portland,’ the first thing they think is Portland, Oregon. And you go, ‘No, we’re in Portland, Maine,’ and they’ll say, ‘Why you living in Portland, Maine, man?’
I tell them because it’s got a great quality of life. I tell them how I get up and go to the bakery [One Fifty Ate] in the morning, where all these Zen bakers have been up since, like, four o’clock in the morning praying over this damn dough, and I go in there and feel like I’m having this religious experience of sorts, and it gets me going in the morning. And I tell them I have really clean air. And if I want to, I can see the ocean every single day — without scum in it.
What I realize is, for working, the sort of work I do, which is solitary — either writing or thinking or whatever — it’s cool. But then when I’m feeling isolated, we jump in the car and go to Boston or New York. It’s not even the social engagement as much as it is the proximity. Sometimes I just need that rush, just to be walking around in Brooklyn or Harvard Square.
What about being tied into the business end of things by living in Maine? Like, I know you’re trying to get distribution for the Robin Harris movie.
Phone. I spent the whole morning on contract talks. It’s all doable by fax, email, overnight mail.
What about the whole Hollywood cliché of things getting done over business lunches? What about schmoozing?
Oh yeah, you still gotta stay in the fray. I go out there periodically.
Going next week. I try to get out there every month. I’m thinking about shifting more to New York, though. The big question for me is whether I want to do another television series. That could take a while — I could be tied up on a television series for five years.
And you would have to be where the series is filmed?
Yes…. That would be New York, hopefully.
Would it be possible to have a network show that’s consistent with your desire to leave a legacy, versus the more commercial side of TV?
I hope so. That’s what I’m looking to do if I do anything. I want most of the work I do at this point to have some meaning. ‘Martin’ had meaning, or else I wouldn’t have done it.
Did it still have meaning the fourth year, the third year?
Oh, it had the most meaning when I was there the first two years. If you look at the storytelling in the first two years, it’s much stronger. Then it just got sort of loosey goosey. They’re just calling it in, man. But it paid for my kids to go to college, and he and I are still friends.
But I don’t like the stuff that’s coming out of Hollywood now. I think it just has a little too much sameness to it.
In terms of TV or movies?
Both. I like the independent stuff, the cable stuff. I’m watching PBS more and more. At least I can be informed.
I’ve started writing a film that’s personal; it’s got my stamp all over it. My goal is to make movies for much less money that say a lot more. Either it’s going to make you laugh, make you cry, make you think.
What about distribution of the Chumbies?
It’s on Amazon. We’ve got our first retailer, Casco Bay Bookstore. We sell it through the Internet. We’re essentially building a brand. I’m learning every day how difficult it is to build a brand. Because I so believe in it, I stay with it. Every day, there’s some interest. Every day, somebody buys it.
How are they finding about it?
Well, we have some loyalists, and it’s got to be getting viral. We have it on something called Live 365, where it’s a streaming thing that’s on every day. They tell us that more and more people are signing up. Don’t ask me how they know about it — somebody must be telling them. We haven’t really promoted it real hard yet.
And if someone wanted to see the Robin Harris movie, they would have to, what, look for it at a festival?
Two things. There’s going to be a theatrical tour, limited, probably 12 cities, Portland being one of them. And then it’ll definitely be on the shelves next year everywhere — Blockbuster, that sort of thing. We’ve got three offers at the moment for a distribution deal on DVD.
And what about the chicken movie?
Tough one. The Fine Art of Frying Chicken won the Maine Film Festival. It’s about a 89-year-old friend of mine. It’s tough to find just the right constituency for it, and I haven’t stopped to think about it in an intense way, because I know the other two projects are more viable. But I haven’t given up on it. As soon as I get the Robin film deal set, and get the Chumbies going…the Chumbies, by the way, are going to be in classrooms in like six or seven cities.
Are you doing all of this?
It’s my wife and I, and a couple of people who work for us. And then as we need more help, freelancers around the country. The family helps us, pitches in when we need it. It’s definitely a bootstrap operation, but it’s basically the two of us and a couple of employees who are part-time. Like our Webmaster is in L.A., the server is in Cincinnati, the guy who does our commerce thing is in Iowa. It’s definitely a guerilla operation, which makes it kind of fun. We try to think about things that we can actually execute that are highly creative and engaging and that don’t cost a fortune to do. So I spend time thinking about, ‘Okay, these are my assets, these are my strengths, these are my interests. What can I do with that that allows me to live in Maine comfortably and only travel as much as I need to for either business or just because I need some stim?’
The thing about Maine is… first of all, I find the people to be far friendlier, more open, more accessible. My neighbors are far more neighborly than the neighbors I typically had in Los Angeles. People take a lot more pride in where they live and in their ethics. People seem to be far more honest and more willing to just be there.
In L.A., I drive an old Volvo, and I get honked by everyone. If I was driving a Mercedes, nobody would honk at that. Now, very seldom do you get honked in Maine.
Do you ever feel isolated — not just in terms of ‘I need to go to New York for stimulation,’ but because you’re black and living in Maine?
Oh yeah, there’s definitely that. Listen, the first winter I came up here, man, I didn’t see any black people until spring. That was weird. So, yeah, every now and then that gets to me, but not in a big way. I just go down to Boston, or get on the phone, or listen to WMPG at five o’clock when they’re doing their blues run.
The diversity has increased tremendously in the few years I’ve been here. One way to know that is that when I first came, I couldn’t find a black barber shop. I had to go to L.A. to get my hair cut. Now I know of at least two black barber shops. The mayor [of Portland, Jill Duson] is black. So the composite of my life works out.
The other thing that’s fascinating here is that there’s a stronger bond among the business people. They seem to relate to each other and support each other in a way that you don’t find out West, or that I have no experience with in Boston. But you go downtown, and you feel like you’re talking to the person who owns the place. You’re not talking to a representative of The Gap Nation; you’re talking to a person. And you go into one of these businesses and say, ‘I’ve been looking for such and such,’ and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I know five people with that. Here, let me help you.’
I would say the challenge for creative people in Portland is the same challenge for creative people anywhere, and this is how to be entrepreneurial, how to constantly think about yourself as a small business, and how to constantly think about ways to cause people to connect to your work in a way that they want to pay for it. Probably 15 or 20 percent of my time is spent on the creative thing that I actually do, and the rest is spent on trying to cause people to connect to it so that they want to pay for it.
And pay is okay. ‘Pay’ is not a bad word. I think if your work has value, you want other people to perceive the same kind of value in it that you do. That’s hard — how do you establish value for what you do so that people will support you, so that you can keep doing it?
Portland is a little tougher, because Maine has been such a craft-oriented community as opposed to an art community. If you go to an art show downtown, there’ll be 100 photos of the [Fort Williams] lighthouse, and there’ll be 100 paintings of the shoreline. But I think there’s a group of people who are trying to elevate the arts, and so I think you have to be in and out of Maine if you’re going to live here as an artist.