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Producing partners

Actor/rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and L.A. film producer Randall Emmett have joined forces to shoot several movies in West Michigan.

By Marty Primeau
Photography by Johnny Quirin

The cast and crew of “Setup” gathered near a snowy gravesite in Grand Rapids’ Woodlawn Cemetery, waiting to shoot a scene in the action film starring Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Bruce Willis and Ryan Phillipe.

They stood patiently in December’s dreary, sub-freezing weather as Jackson and his co-producer, Randall Emmett, conferred about some last-minute decisions.

When director Mike Gunther finally called for “quiet on the set,” Jackson returned to his character as a diamond thief, striding across the snowy ground to embrace actress Susie Abromeit.

“Setup” is the fourth movie the producing partners have filmed in West Michigan in less than two years, following “Caught in the Crossfire,” “Things Fall Apart” and “Gun,” which premiered in December, and they’re planning several more. Next month they’ll start production of “Freelancers.”

“We love Grand Rapids,” Emmett said later, warming up in Jackson’s trailer. With more than 60 films to his credit, including Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo,” the Los Angeles film producer said he doesn’t know of any other city in the U.S. “where you can block off three city blocks and start crashing cars and shooting out windows and have the community get excited.”

Jackson — the rapper best know as 50 Cent — rose to fame in 2003 with the success of his CD “Get Rich or Die Tryin’.” He said he loves the friendly, respectful vibe in Grand Rapids. “People are nice here. It’s a cool place for me to be.”

And yes, he said, rumors that he’s been house hunting in the area are true. “I won’t make a decision until we have a slate of films lined up,” he said. “But if we’re going to be doing three or four movies in Grand Rapids in 2011, it makes more sense to buy a house than to stay in a hotel.”

The two men launched their production company, Cheetah Vision, in 2009 and are partners in locally based Grand Rapids Films and Services, a business designed to help producers who want to work in West Michigan.

Emmett and Jackson are also close friends, an “odd couple” relationship that has flourished despite their disparate backgrounds.

Jackson, who off camera is soft spoken, gentle and nothing like the tough guy he portrays in his films, was a poor kid raised in the streets of New York City by a teen-age mother who was dealing drugs to make ends meet.

Emmett grew up in Miami, the son of doting parents who assured him he could be anything he wanted to be.

While Jackson rapped his way to celebrity and fortune, signing a $1 million contract with Eminem, Emmett followed a conventional path, graduating from film school before venturing out to Hollywood.

Their mutual love of movies is what brought them together.

“We live and eat and breathe movies,” Emmett said. “We have the same vision.”

Both men talked about the turning points that have helped them reach their goals.

Jackson said his life changed 14 years ago when his son was born. “That’s when I totally shifted my energy into writing and making music,” he said. “I wanted a relationship with him that I didn’t have with my father. I felt that if I wasn’t around, no one would be there to provide for him.”

His own childhood in the South Jamaica neighborhood of Queens was “real hard,” he said. “My mom was 15 when she had me. At that time there were no programs for teen mothers, so it was welfare or the street life.”

She chose the street and was killed when Jackson was just a boy. With no father, he moved in with his grandparents and eight other children.

“There weren’t a lot of finances,” Jackson said. “The only people with financial freedom that I could see were people from my mother’s life.” By age 12, he was dealing cocaine and heroin, “looking for instant gratification. I wanted nice things.”

Music became a positive outlet. “In my first CD, I wrote about all the dysfunctional behaviors I’d been exposed to, in a nutshell. And obviously, aggression translated the strongest.”

And aggression sold very well.

“I had the largest debut in hip hop,” Jackson said. “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” sold more than 12 million CDs in 2003, followed by “The Massacre,” which sold 10 million. Along with his tough guy image came feuds with other rappers. In 2000, Jackson was shot nine times outside his grandmother’s home and spent weeks in recovery.

“Struggles define your character,” he said. “I’m hoping it was just the first few chapters of my life that were difficult and the rest of the book is good. Don’t count how many times I’m down; count how many times I get up.”

His face lights up when he talks about his son, a high school freshman who lives with Jackson’s former girlfriend in New York City. “I talk to him a lot,” he said with a grin. “But he’s a busy kid with school and he plays basketball.”

Like most dads, Jackson said he doesn’t always get his son’s full respect. “When he comes to the studio, he’s more excited to see Dr. Dre and Eminem. I can’t be that cool — until his friends come around.”

Though acting is a priority, Jackson still tours and records music, even keeping a studio trailer on his movie sets.

“It’s nice to have music and film at the same time. I’m at a point where I’m actually being an artist. In the beginning, there were limitations because I had to be conscious of finances. Now I can do what I want. When you have a successful track record, people listen and doors start to open.”

Emmett said that’s how he felt when he finally found funding to do his first project, a low-budget film called “Eyes Beyond Seeing.”

“Making movies was all I ever wanted to do,” he said. After earning a bachelor’s degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, he moved to L.A. and worked at a talent agency. “I was assistant to Mark Wahlberg while I tried to get my first movie financed.”

But his big break came a few years later when he produced “Sixteen Blocks” with Bruce Willis. “Until then, I was doing movies around $5 (million) to $15 million. Suddenly, it jumped to $40 (million) to $50 million.”

Today, he still loves the moment when the lights go down in the theater and the credits come up. “It never gets old,” he said. “I’m always shocked and think, ‘Did we really just do this?’”

He and Jackson are pleased at how the film industry in Grand Rapids has progressed since they started making movies in West Michigan a year ago. “There are incredibly talented people here,” said Emmett, who also was involved in “Touchback,” which stars Kurt Russell and was filmed partially at Coopersville High School. “About half to 60 percent of the crew we use is local — as high as 85 percent on some movies.

“Grand Rapids is starting to feel more like a Hollywood set.”GR

Marty Primeau is managing editor of Grand Rapids Magazine.

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