On the Outs is a dramatic narrative feature based upon the real stories of girls from the streets and juvenile jail, who lent their voices and unique stories to the filmmakers. These are girls who struggle with all the highs and lows of teenage life in an inner-city world that makes its own rules.
The film follows the lives of three central characters from the same Jersey City neighborhood: Oz, 17, is a tough drug dealer with her own corner and the street’s respect, who struggles to keep her family intact. Suzette, the sheltered 15 year old daughter of a single mother, whose first teenage crush has life changing repercussions, and Marisol, 17, a single mother who fights both her own demons and the uncompromising world of foster care to keep her child.
In the Summer of 2003, Lori Silverbush, Michael Skolnik and Paola Mendoza, good friends and creative collaborators, sat down to talk about an issue that was of great interest and importance to them both – the perilous lives of inner-city girls. Michael, in his documentary work had met many young people whose lives awed, saddened and inspired him. Lori’s work as a screenwriter was increasingly focusing on the lives of adolescent girls. Paola, an actress and youth educator, whose own childhood background was similar to the stories they were trying to tell. All three have long felt that inner-city girls are the key to ending the tragic cycle of economic, educational and emotional neglect that define at-risk kids’ lives. Incidences of violent crime and incarceration had been rising within this population, and the directors were inspired to find out why.
They began by developing an acting and writing program to bring into a juvenile detention center in Secaucus, NJ, where youthful offenders are held in custody for infractions ranging from truancy and fighting to more serious violent crimes. They visited the detention center twice a week for three months, getting to know the inmates, learning about their lives, and encouraging them to find productive means of self-expression – writing, music, acting – other than violence. Many of the girls opened up to the filmmakers and shared generously of their pasts and turbulent presents. These relationships grew deeper, and the stories the three partners heard became the foundation for the three girls lives depicted in On the Outs.
The next step was to embark on pre-production and cast the film. Silverbush and Skolnik selected an ensemble of actors who hailed from similar background as the girls in detention, and began a daily workshop to hammer out the story. Any of the inmates they met in the juvenile detention center (a.k.a. “Youth House”) were welcome to join the production upon their release and provide input, and on many occasions they did. The script was developed over weeks of improvisational experimentation between actors, kids, and creators of the film. The improvisations were videotaped, and the best of these sessions became scenes in the film’s shooting script.
Skolnik and Silverbush then went back into the community in which the characters live, scouting locations and enlisting dozens of extras and local actors for smaller parts from some of the roughest blocks in Jersey City, NJ. The local population – used to being ignored or marginalized — became the film’s strongest supporters, reaching out to help the team bring the lives of their own young women to the screen over three and half weeks of shooting in the fall of 2003.