“New Orleans, That’s My Heart”

An interview with Gregory Chestnut, producer of Cut Throat City

Gregory Chestnut was 11-years-old when he pestered me at the New Orleans coffee shop where I sat working on my laptop. Over the course of some weeks, I’d watched the chubby little kid interact with all the other young people in the coffeeshop, and knew he’d get around to me. Gregory was what my parents would inappropriately call a street urchin. His single mother worked a lot and he survived largely on his own, but instead of getting into trouble (trouble being incredibly easy to find in New Orleans), he spent his time drumming up positive attention from coffee shop white ladies, and casually interviewing local musicians like myself.

He asked me a million questions about my band, White Bitch, and about what New Orleans clubs I performed at, and about what type of guitar I played and… He wanted to be on stage, one way or another. At the time, I taught after-school music classes to kids his age, so it felt natural to take Gregory seriously, and take him under my wing.

Months later, Gregory signed on as a co-singer in a “black metal” band called Mangina. His bandmates, all in their early 30s, had him paint his face white, and scream his brains out like only a kid can. Gregory’s adult co-singer would cut himself with broken beer bottles on stage. Not a good scene. I softly encouraged Gregory to quit Mangina, and join my much more wholesome band, White Bitch.

Despite our offensive name (which Gregory absolutely loved saying on the mic), he at least had a real teacher (me) leading him in and out of nightclubs at late hours. “MC Lil Gregory” sang and rapped and danced on several dozen stages with me, basically acting as my hype man, and he was incredibly good at it. Over the course of almost three years, we rocked venues like the House of Blues, and opened for killer bands including TV on the Radio.

Skip ahead to 2019 and I haven’t seen Gregory much for a number of years. We touch base here and there. The now tall, skinny, handsome young Black man in his late 20s works in New Orleans’s thriving film industry. He’s killin it, in fact. He’s been heavily involved in a Katrina heist movie called Cut Throat City, where he served as assistant to the movie’s director, RZA from Wu Tang Clan. He’d already been plotting a move to the bigger filmmaking scene in Los Angeles, when RZA gave Gregory a bump by giving him a producer credit on Cut Throat City, and offered him a job as his assistant in L.A. For the next two months in New Orleans, Gregory stayed with my family, and slept in my office, saving up money for his big move.

RZA
Gregory Chestnut (left) and RZA (right) on the set of Cut Throat City.

One year later, on the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Cut Throat City has finally seen release–during a pandemic. I called Gregory in L.A. to speak to him about his first movie, his new life as a Los Angeles movie producer, his relationship with RZA, and how he owes it all to me.

The first thing I want to ask about Cut Throat City, is the dick-biting raccoon that T.I.’s crime-boss character owns, and keeps in a cage. Long ago I read this movie’s script, and it was a dick-biting nutria rat

Yeah, we couldn’t find a nutria that was trained or that we could train, so we had to use a raccoon.

Nutria are also vegetarian animals and I don’t think they’d bite a dick.

If you trained them they would.   

I don’t think so, Gregory. Anyway, tell me what you’ve done in the year since you slept in my office.

Well, after wrapping Cut Throat City with RZA, I worked as an assistant to Jamie Foxx on Project Power, which filmed in New Orleans. Jamie also wanted to hire me. He thought I was the best assistant. They always think I’m the best assistant. And then I went on the road with the Wu Tang Clan, and when we came back, I worked for RZA on the show Wu Tang: An American Saga for like a year. He was a producer on that show. We mixed that with a couple more Wu Tang tours.

How did you get them to bump you up from a mere assistant to a producer?

Cut Throat City I make shit happen. I produce results, get shit done, meet deadlines, make phone calls, write emails, secure permits. In the case of Cut Throat City I just used the relationships I had in the city [of New Orleans]. I took RZA and them to different places, introduced them to people so they could get stories, and help them understand the surroundings and the city’s different wards. Tasks that might have taken someone else months, I’d make happen in a week, with me being a New Orleanian myself. I did everything from casting, to location scouting… I just knew the beat. I think I am one of the only producers on this movie who is actually from New Orleans. I’m also one of the only actors in the movie who is from New Orleans.I had a small onscreen role…

It’s too bad your first movie won’t be seen in theatres because of Covid.

You can go to the theatre and see it!

No movie theaters for me. Sorry. Anyway, now that your movie is in the rearview, what is your next step?

Well I am still the executive assistant to RZA and I work with the Wu Tang Clan. I handle RZA’s on-the-ground, day-to-day logistics, and scheduling and everything. That’s what I was doing on the set of Cut Throat City too, but that was a lighter workload than this. RZA appreciates that I get results quickly, and that I am connected world-wide. I’m a connector.

How many assistants does RZA have?

I think he has a lot of assistants. Like, a lot. Then he also has temporary assistants on each project. But people who work with him like I do? I think he has maybe two or three.

And RZA pays you?

Every single Friday.

Does the check have a Wu Tang symbol in the upper left corner? That would be badass.

It comes direct deposit.

Direct deposit from “Wu Tang Financial”?

Yes.

That’s awesome. I am very proud of you, Gregory. I always knew you’d do big things. In closing, tell me what doing Cut Throat City has meant to you.

Cut Throat City, that’s where I’m from, New Orleans, that’s my heart, so for me it’s a major accomplishment to showcase a story that’s from the same background as I’m from, and to film it here with people from New Orleans working on it and it benefits the community… It provided people with jobs, some of my close friends. The struggle depicted in Cut Throat City also hits hard for me because it’s about coming up in the hood, and not having many shoulders to lean on, and not always having everyone believe in you so that you can believe in yourself…

You mean like how I believed in you?

You better make my interview good, like off the motherfuckin’ chain, baby! I don’t usually give the press this much of my time, y’heard me?

 

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Michael Patrick Welch

Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans author and journalist. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, Oxford American, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other great venues.

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