FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Sanford native, Jessica B. Smith, used her love for writing to create a script for her first movie, “Elle Rose,” a romantic comedy inspired by the ones she loved growing up.
Smith, a Lee Senior graduate, will release her first movie which she wrote, directed and starred in and which also features Hope Mills native Shaun McMillan.
Smith said the movie was inspired by her love for Black romance movies such as “Love & Basketball” and “Brown Sugar.”
“I love ‘Love & Basketball.’ ‘Love & Basketball’ came out when I was in high school. I fell in love with the movie, and I never stopped loving it,” Smith said. “It is one of my favorite movies ever. I just love the story of two very close friends falling in love — I love that. Another one of my favorite movies is ‘Brown Sugar,’ again, it’s the same story, basically. I’ve always wanted to write something like that.”
“Elle Rose” started as a book but turned into a film as Smith found she had an easier time writing it as a movie.
“I was trying to write my fifth book, and it was called ‘Elle Rose,’” Smith said. “It was a romance novel and two best friends who fake being in love, but they end up falling for real. It was supposed to be a book and I’ve tried to write this book for years and I kept getting stuck. I was so confused. And I said, ‘why is this book so clear in my head, but when I’m trying to write it is not working?’ So I decided, just to get past writer’s block, to try to write the book and the movie. When I tried to write it as a movie, it wrote itself. Within two weeks, I had a whole entire movie.”
Smith also said that no one was really matching what she saw in her head as the lead until she met Shaun McMillan.
“He’s such a great person,” said Smith. “He’s a substitute teacher for the Cumberland County School system, he’s an activist in Fayetteville, but he’s also a working actor. He came on board with my project, and after that we did it.”
McMillan said one of the reasons he wanted to be a part of the “Elle Rose” production was because it was all local.
“It’s a local feature film, which is unheard of in this area,” McMillan said. “I’m proud of Jessica for being local and taking it all the way to the height of producing a feature film.”
McMillan added that he was interested in starring in a romantic role.
“Lately I’ve played a couple of bad guys, and I did do another romantic lead a couple of years ago around the same time,” said McMillian. “To me, the love story was attractive. The fact that it was about young Black professionals; she was telling a story from her perspective that I knew would appeal to our community. And then the other thing was it being a homemade product — people from my area, from the place that I call home and the place that I’m proud of actually putting their talents to work and representing central North Carolina.”
McMillan is an Army veteran who served from 1998 to 2016. He attended Elizabeth City State University, where he was involved in theater.
“I started acting, way back in college in the ’90s, I went to Elizabeth City State University and was involved in a little theater there,” McMillan said. “I was deeply involved in theater and then when I came into the Army, I put that on the shelf and didn’t touch it for 20 years.”
McMillan is the founder of Fayetteville PACT, which works to end mass incarceration, racial profiling, selective enforcement and use of excessive force in policing.
He has been involved in activism in Fayetteville since 2016, when he founded PACT following the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot by a patrolman in 2015 in Cleveland, he said.
Aside from the movies she grew up watching, Smith was also inspired to write the movie as a way to break down Black stereotypes.
“I really wanted to rewrite a stereotypical narrative that’s attached to the Black community, which is why I have been part of both working software tech fields,” she Smith. “Because when you think of software technology, the creation of software technologies, the first thought that comes to your mind is not the Black community. So that was intentional to put them in that type of career field, and not only put them in a career field at the top of it, because they’re the best.”
Smith was born in New Bern but was raised in Sanford where she attended Lee Senior High School before graduating and attending Campbell University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She went to school online at National University in California, where she received a Masters in Fine Arts in creative writing and a Masters in English. Her first job was teaching at Miller-Motte College. Later, she taught online at Southern New Hampshire University and then at Central Carolina Community College. She taught English, literature and creative writing at each college. Smith still lives in Sanford today.
“Elle Rose,” which is rated PG-13, will premiere at the AMC Theaters in Fayetteville on Skibo Road on Jan. 30, 2021. Tickets can be purchased at ellerosethemovie.com.