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Film Q&A - "Smoke and Mirrors" showcases Atlanta's black arts scene

Runaway hit web series returns for season two with a lot of familiar faces and places

In the premiere for the second season of "Smoke and Mirrors," Dixon finds himself in a bit of a creative rut before his girlfriend Lalani reminds him that necessity is the mother of invention. It serves as a business metaphor for the creators behind the smart, sensual, locally produced web series, who found themselves with a runaway hit on their hands when they debuted season one of Dixon's determined quest for monogamy (and sanity) on YouTube in 2013. The 12-episode season eventually racked up more than a quarter million views total. After a two year hiatus, KarynRose Bruyning (writer) and Artemus Jenkins (cinematographer, actor) returned last month with the re-up and some creative innovation of their own in the form of a distribution format that allows binge watchers to indulge by purchasing the entire season upfront at a price of $5 rather than waiting for the weekly release of each episode.

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Atlanta also gets an upgrade in season two, as Bruyning and Jenkins give the city's black arts scene — and some of its most identifiable characters — recurring roles. From cameos by the likes of writer Maurice Garland, artist/entrepreneurs Sean Fahie, Melvin Todd, and Miya Bailey to a hilarious storyline involving Lalani's former tryst with real-life Atlanta personality Sean Falyon (famous for his "Sean Falyon Be Everywhere" tagline), season two is full of recognizable faces and places. In a recent phone conversation, Jenkins and Bruyning talked about what motivated them to make Atlanta a main character and how the series reflects the pulse of the city's creative underground.

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It seems like there was more on-location shooting in Atlanta and more recognizable Atlantans in this season. Was that a conscious attempt to draw Atlanta in and ground the story here?

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KarynRose Bruyning: Absolutely. I think the other side is that we definitely had the support of Atlanta in the first season. So for me it was really important to make Atlanta more of a character. I think that a lot of times when you shoot on location anywhere, it lends a feeling to it. And with a city like Atlanta that has such a personality of its own I thought it was important. I wanted to make sure that we went in and we used more of it. So, of course, we have Miya Bailey coming back, we shot at City of Ink, we shot at Edgewood, we shot at the Malcolm X Festival. It was very important to me to make it as Atlanta as possible and really do this city justice.

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Let's talk about the Sean Falyon backstory, 'cause that shit was funny as hell.

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KB: Laughs He's such a good sport for that. I love him for that and I told him so the other day because he was getting a little bit of flack. I remember I told A.J. what I wanted to do and he was like, "I think he'll do it." I was nervous about it. And then I called him and said, "So this is what I want to say." And he said, "Aww man, you gonna make me look like the creep." But he was with it. He was completely with it. So I adore him for going with it. Because Sean Falyon is his real name and "Sean Falyon Be Everywhere" is his real brand and he let me kind of mess with it. I loved him for that.

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Artemus Jenkins: A couple of people actually hit me and asked, "What's with all this Sean Falyon branding?" When people are our folks this is how we do. It's not strange. Last season Miya was in it. Some of the girls for instance, who my character went on dates with, those are girls who model and act. Everybody just coming together in a really organic way is what it is at the root of it. So the fact that the man just happens to have a brand and we found a way to naturally put it in the story is just a bonus. But that's how it's supposed to work.

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That line that Lalani says when she's arguing with Dixon is so classic: "Everybody's fucked Sean Falyon, who the hell cares?!"

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KB: When I was pitching the whole thing to him, I said: "This is what the script says, Sean." And he just said, "Aight, fuck it. Let's go." He had a moment where he was like, "Karen, you're going to ruin things for me." But he was with it. He was a great sport.

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Karen, you live in New York? So how are you familiar enough with Atlanta's people and culture to incorporate all of this into the script?

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KB: Well, I am there a bit and AJ's my partner so I know the scene. With Sean it was easy because I met Sean in New York. That "be everywhere" thing is a real thing. And I met Miya in New York because the artists that are there, they work and travel everywhere. Of course, I met a lot of them through AJ. If I can figure out a way to tell a story and if I need to cross-reference it I ask AJ, "Who makes sense for this? Who has this perspective?" I knew I wanted Atlanta people and I was really specific about it.

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Is that Chaka Zulu of Disturbing Tha Peace playing your character Dixon's dad?

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AJ: He just happens to look like Chaka Zulu because we are related. My dad is his brother, which makes my Chaka Zulu my uncle.

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OK, I thought he looked familiar. He had some cool lines in the scene where he was giving you relationship advice, like when he says: "I'm not old, I'm wizmatic." I'm claiming that.

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KB: And I didn't tell him to say that. You should totally claim it. He'd love it. I told him what I wanted to him to talk about. I gave him some prompts. And then we turned the camera on and I let him go. It was awesome.

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AJ: One thing we try to do with the work is pull out a link between what's happening in real life and what's happening in fake life, so to speak. And because we have people come in and play themselves, those things are actually happening — the things that are actually happening from a community-building standpoint with our peers. You saw in episode two Melvin Todd's Loveless Society brand is about to be featured. You saw Sean Falyon and Sean Fahie and Miya's new gallery is a part of the series. So all those things aren't just things for the season.

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How do you all define this real-life creative scene highlighted in the show this season?

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AJ: As defined as it is, it's not a solid thing yet. Every year something different happens in it. Atlanta's very deep and rich in its culture history, in terms of civil rights and American history. And the culture that was created from the '80s up to this point through music and entertainment, all that stuff is pretty solid. The scene I'm a part of has also been here but it's really brand new. It's been happening, but with the eye really being concentrated on visual arts and with film also becoming a major part of that — not even just independently but mainstream — that part of Atlanta is still being defined. And with this scene only being about five years old, I think it's still really fluid and still waiting to be defined. It's real cool to be a part of that, a part of helping to define a scene and genre within a culture and within an entire city.

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KB: Coming from New York to Atlanta and going into the art scene there, specifically the black arts scene, I think the part of it that's most fun, if I can speak to defining it, is that there are no boundaries. You can do whatever it is you want to do. People who are tattoo artists have become some of the most brilliant visual artists. And that is what it is. A lot of times you see people who get stuck in a medium and that's all they do. And in Atlanta, that's not really the case. I've not met really any artists who feel stuck in one thing. AJ does video, AJ does photography — and I'm probably going to get in trouble for this — but at some point I'm pushing him to start showing the art that he does because he draws all the time. The artists in Atlanta do what they want to do and they're not stuck. And I think that not necessarily having a defining thing is what makes it beautiful to watch.

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