Five Star, premiering Thursday night at the Tribeca Film Festival in the Narrative Competition, stars real life General in the East New York Bloods, James ‘Primo’ Grant.

Five Star is a feature adaptation of director Keith Miller’s short documentary film “Gang Bangin’ 101” (2011), which also starred Grant. In the short film, Grant spoke candidly about his history with the Bloods – he joined when he was 12 – and his life in the gang. Miller enjoys shooting authentic people in real situations that are close to them, not just imagined scenarios for made-up characters. What results is a cinematic study of the blurred lines between reality and film.

“The sort of anxiety that comes from not being sure what is real, I hope, creates a more direct and experiential engagement with the story, and then by extensions with the reality outside the frame, which is, for me, where the most interesting stuff happens,” Miller said of the blurred lines he explores.

Aside from casting non-actors, Miller also made changes to his original script after he cast his other main actor, John Diaz, 21, who plays a 15-year-old also named John. In the film, John bonds with Primo (Grant) while considering joining a gang. After learning that Diaz’s father left him and his mother when he was a toddler, Miller changed the character’s background to allow for Diaz to use his own, personal emotions in his performance. In the finished script, Primo takes John under his wing after John’s father is shot and killed.

“People have difficulty wrapping their head around this idea that the story is fictional because they think Primo and John are playing themselves. But they are acting,” Miller clarified.

Grant also has more in common with his character, other than their shared gang history. Grant’s fiancée Tamara Robinson plays his wife in the film, and his four children also make appearances – as themselves – in Five Star.

Despite its true-to-life casting, Miller insists that the film is not a documentary. Instead, Miller says he would give his actors lines and scene descriptions on the day of shooting to inspire the most authentic performances.

“I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh, I have to feel angry right now because later I will hit him,’” Miller explained. “There is not next. There is only now. I want them to feel the reality of that moment – real emotion in real time.”

The film’s stars say they both enjoyed the freedom Miller allowed onset.

“Most directors would be like, ‘You got a line, you got a part, you got a facial expression.’ And you have to get it done within this time. Keith is more like, ‘This is the scenario, but I am not going to tell you the exact lines. I want you to feel your lines,” said Diaz of the shoot.

Miller describes his filmmaking process as one rooted in a trusting environment, for the cast and for the crew, and says that he only gives specific direction when necessary, but prefers to give actors freedom whenever possible.

“For a scene I start with some basic goals in terms of mood, content, text. Sometimes this is very specific – precisely scripted dialogue, blocking, camera movements – and others it is more open and I try to push things along as we move, asking for a repeat of things or challenging the actor to go deeper or push more,” Miller said in an interview.

Five Star premieres Thursday, April 17, and is also screening Friday, April 18, Monday, April 21, and Saturday, April 26 as part of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.

Olivia Truffaut-Wong

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> First Look At 'Gabriel' Starring Rory Culkin

> 2014 Tribeca Film Festival Must-See Movies: 'About Alex,' 'Begin Again' And More

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