Monthly Archives: November 2016

Filmmaker Interview: Jack C. Newell

My latest blog post for Time Out Chicago is the following interview with Jack C. Newell.

Jack C. Newell is the program director at the recently launched Harold Ramis Film School at Second City and an award-winning filmmaker whose most recent feature, the locally shot romantic comedy
Open Tables, will be available to watch via iTunes beginning Friday, December 2. I recently spoke to Jack about the film, improvisation, food and amnesia.

MGS: Open Tables is frequently referred to as an “improv comedy.” Tell me about your process: Did you have a treatment that you worked from or did you write a script based on improv exercises with the actors?

JN: On the spectrum of the completely written film where you don’t change a single word on set to “We’re just gonna make it all up,” we hit different points along that entire spectrum. There is a script—it’s like 60 pages. The section in France was all written but we got there and then threw it all out. Is that scripted or is it improvised? I don’t know. Sometimes, like in the dinner party where they’re talking about having three-ways, literally the text in the script is: “They make jokes about three-ways.” One line. And it goes on for three or four minutes. Hannah and Dean, the guy with no memory—that’s almost completely scripted because I had to make sure he said the exact same thing. And then T.J. [Jagodowski]’s scenes, the four-way couple scenes—all improvised. The other thing we did was that I wrote and we shot all of the stories that are told at the dinner party before we shot the dinner party. And then I gave transcripts of the scenes to the people who are telling the stories. So Kate [Duffy] and Keith [Kupferer], the couple that tells the story of Hannah and Dean, they are the only ones that had seen and read that part of the film. So we told the story twice: once to get real reactions—because Colleen [Doyle] and Desmin [Borges] and Caroline [Neff] are all incredibly witty—and then we would do it again if we missed a moment or if someone found a discovery then we could elaborate on that. We did it all the different ways you possibly could. And we shot over nine months. We had forty production days, which is crazy.

MGS: The word improv to me has a negative connotation in terms of cinema. When I hear that word I think that means a film will be sloppy. But your film is cinematographically very sound; the overhead shots of the plates give it a structural elegance.

JN: It’s very formal. The improv thing is so fucked up. I really hate it. I agree with everything you’re saying. I think mumblecore ruined it. Improv or scripted, all that matters in the end is “Is it good? Is it successful or not successful? Does it make you feel something or not?” A lot of people say, “improv is like jazz,” because they think jazz is about making shit up but that’s not what jazz is. What makes jazz work, and how it fits into continuing the language of jazz, is people constantly calling back to other songs; they go here and it’s like, “Oh, I see what you did there. Or I thought you were going to go there but you went over here.” And that is actually the better definition of improvisation. There are jazz standards like “Sunny Side of the Street” or “Summertime” or whatever…

MGS: Or Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things,” which starts with the familiar melody and then takes off.

JN: Exactly—15 minutes long. He elaborates and then he comes back. These songs are: “This is the song. But it’s still jazz because what we’re going to do is have some fun in the middle.” And that’s how I think about improvisation and how that can work with cinema: What is the jazz standard that we’re playing here? In a scene with T.J. and Desmin and Colleen and Linda [Orr], the four-way scene, that was like—a lot of time I would just give them the beginning line of a scene or the last line of a scene and they would either play towards the line or away from the line.

MGS: What is it about the act of congregating to eat that’s conducive to good cinema?

JN: That’s a good question. When people go out to eat and they have good food, one of the things that happens is people get transported. You can take a bite of something and food has this incredible ability to elicit memories. So does smell. Smell maybe more than taste, you know? Film is very dreamy and the borders of it are not super-rigid. So the associations you can get through food, and what that creates in terms of conversation, I feel like connect to cinema pretty well because you can very easily in an edit be transported to Paris or wherever and it’s not weird.

MGS: Let’s talk about the subplot of the amnesiac. That will be the most memorable part of the film for a lot of viewers because it’s so funny. How did you come up with that storyline and what does it mean to you?

JN: That one means a lot to me. Here’s the story of how I got this idea: When I was 11, my dad had an aneurysm. I went into the hospital room and he didn’t know who I was. As you can imagine, that’s a pretty big moment. He recovered from that somewhat and then he passed away. He was older. We had a good relationship and he knew who I was. But I definitely had that moment when I walked in and he was like, “Who are you?” That’s hardcore, you know? There was a Radiolab podcast and they did a story on Transient Global Amnesia (TGA). It’s a real thing. I had some fun with it in the film but I basically did it right: You lose your memory and then you kind of get it back. But the thing is you get it back a lot quicker than I (show). You would never go three months. It’s more like in a day you get it back. You just get stuck in a loop. I heard that and I was like, “That’s really fucking interesting. I like that because of my history with my dad.” And then my friend had just gotten divorced and he was telling me about all these dates he was going on. We were having tacos and he was telling me about another first date and I kind of got confused. I was like, “Is this Sarah or is this, you know, Tracy?” And he was like, “No, this is Donna.” I feel like I heard the same story; he took these people on the same first dates. I was just kind of like, “Whoa, I have this idea: What if this person kept going on a first date forever?” That idea could be a movie in itself. So I write it and I’m like “Dave [Pasquesi] would be perfect for this part.” He can do it, he’s an improviser, he’s an amazing actor. It’s a hard part; if done poorly, it could not work. He’s not remembering and that’s not the easiest thing in the world to play. So I write it and I email it to him one night and he emails me back: “Oh, I didn’t tell you. I had TGA.” I emailed him back and I said, “No, you must’ve forgotten.” Ha, ha, ha. ’Cause I thought he was joking ’cause improvisers are always fucking joking, right? And he doesn’t email me back. I had to go pick up [my wife] from a comedy show. So I went and picked her up and Dave was there, oddly. I don’t see Dave that often. And I’m like, “Hey man, so your email?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I had TGA. I was in L.A. doing yoga. I called my wife and said ‘I just got out of yoga and I’m going to the store.’” He hung up his phone, walked two steps, picked up his phone, called his wife and said “Hey, I just got out of yoga and I’m going to the store.” And his wife was like, “Dave, what the fuck is wrong with you?” But he went to the doctor and they’re like, “We don’t know what causes TGA. It’s this weird thing. It may be stress.” But he had it. Super fucking weird. So he was my actor and adviser.

Learn more about Open Tables via the film’s official website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. 3 Bad Men (Ford)
2. Destiny (Lang)
3. In the Realm of the Senses (Oshima)
4. I, Daniel Blake (Loach)
5. Manchester By the Sea (Lonergan)
6. Chronicle of a Summer (Rouch/Morin)
7. Creepy (Kurosawa)
8. The Love Witch (Biller)
9. Change Nothing (Costa)
10. Cosmos (Zulawski)

The Love Witch at the Siskel Center

I reviewed Anna Biller’s spellbinding The Love Witch for Time Out Chicago. I’m reprinting the review in its entirety below.


Anna Biller’s Grindhouse Homage The Love Witch Casts a Spell

The Love Witch, the year’s most singular American indie, opens its weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Friday. Written and directed by Anna Biller (Viva), this pungent feminist parable pays expert homage to and hilariously satirizes grindhouse genres popular in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, notably the occult thriller and softcore porn. The film is so exacting in its loving recreation of the sights and sounds of that era (especially in terms of costume and set design, which Biller literally worked on for years before filming) that one could easily mistake it as actually originating from the period—until a character pulls out a cell phone. While obviously the work of a hardcore cinephile, The Love Witch is also much more than mere pastiche; lurking beneath the kitschy surface is a genuine sense of tragedy as well as a thematically complex statement about gender relations in the real world and the reel world.

The plot concerns the eponymous character, recently widowed Elaine (played to perfection by the bewitching Samantha Robinson), relocating from San Francisco to a small town among the redwoods. Elaine has an insatiable desire to be loved and presents herself to every hunk she meets as his ultimate fantasy in order to “unlock his love potential.” Samantha is both a sympathetic heroine with a near-religious view of romantic love as uncompromising ideal (Biller has cited Dreyer’s Gertrud as an influence) as well as a funhouse-mirror of the shallowest desires of the men she encounters—all of whom soon realize that Samantha’s love comes at a price. When the bodies start piling up, Detective Griff (Gian Keys) investigates but soon finds that he is not entirely immune to Samantha’s charms. Fittingly for a film with a retro-aesthetic, The Love Witch will screen at the Siskel in a 35mm print, making it a crucial big-screen experience for local movie fans.

The Love Witch opens on Friday, November 25 and runs through Thursday, December 1. For more information, including ticket info and showtimes, visit

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Escape from New York (Carpenter)
2. The Arbalest (Pinney)
3. The Handmaiden (Park)
4. The Executioner (Berlanga)
5. Being 17 (Techine)
6. Things to Come (Hansen-Love)
7. Certain Women (Reichardt)
8. Hoop Dreams (James)
9. Breathless (Godard)
10. Holy Motors (Carax)

Filmmaker Interview: Julie Dash

I recently interviewed Julie Dash for Time Out Chicago. The version that appeared on their site was edited for length so I’m including the uncut version below.


Julie Dash’s landmark 1991 indie film Daughters of the Dust, the first feature directed by an African-American woman to receive a theatrical release, has been the subject of renewed interest this year due to the fact that it’s a major reference point in Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade. Daughters has been newly restored for its 25th anniversary and will receive a one-week theatrical re-release at the Gene Siskel Film Center beginning on Friday, November 25. I recently spoke to Dash about the film when she was in town for the Chicago International Film Festival.

MGS: Tell me about this beautiful new restoration of Daughters of the Dust. I read that you didn’t properly color time it when it was originally released.

JD: Correct. We didn’t have enough money to continue. Because back in the analog days, every answer print – you know, the whole: answer print, answer print, answer print to release print? – we got to the second answer print and that was $20,000. And it was like “Enough!” I mean, at this point, let’s get this show on the road! We can’t go any further. It was the cost. And so that answer print did not look like the work print we worked on. The work print looked better.

MGS: Were you personally involved in the new restoration?

JD: We brought back in A.J. (cinematographer Arthur Jafa) to sit with the people timing it and doing the scan. And – whoo! – we got it just in time. The original elements were starting to deteriorate. There was some shrinkage in some areas. They scanned it twice in 2K. We couldn’t afford 4K. Once again! (laughing) Here we go again!

MGS: It’s great that it’s getting re-released theatrically.

JD: That was not even on my agenda. That came as an utter and complete wonderful surprise. I just wanted it scanned and I just wanted a Blu-ray, you know? And we had it done. And then… Lemonade (Beyonce’s “visual album,” which owes a strong stylistic debt to Dash’s film). And it was like, “Wow. This is wonderful. This is great stuff.” And people were saying, “Well, what is Daughters of the Dust? What is this thing?” And I was like, “Yeah, we have it. We’re planning to release it on Blu-ray.” And then Tim (Lanza of Cohen Media) called and said he had a conversation with Charles Cohen. I hadn’t met him yet, Cohen. And they decided: “Let’s do a re-release.” I was like, “In the theaters?” (laughing) When they started looking at the analytics and when Daughters of the Dust started trending on Twitter, it was like “What is this? Wow.” I don’t really see the precedent for this because it’s not like it’s Lawrence of Arabia.

MGS: But it is a seminal film!

JD: Yeah, but there’s no precedent for it. The Shirley Clarke films? Yeah, okay. But, for me, it was just not on my radar to do that. And I was like, “Yeah. Sure!”

MGS: This re-release makes me happy because Daughters of the Dust is a film that was really ahead of its time.

JD: It came at a time when everyone, in terms of independent filmmakers and artists and experimental filmmakers, we were all looking for new ways of telling stories. I said, “I’m going to create this griot story structure – like the way an African griot would recall and recount a family’s history – and I’m going to write this.” And everything was all good and hunky-dory and great. And then (when it was originally released) people were like, “Well, this is like a foreign film.” And I think the wider general audience, they were more open to it than the established – how should I say it? – the curators of culture.

MGS: Including critics?

JD: Yeah. The curators of culture were saying, “This is a difficult film.” Difficult? It’s straightforward! They come and say goodbye, it’s a picnic, and then they go on. It’s the Great Migration, you know what I mean? The Industrial Revolution.

MGS: But it’s not plot-driven. It doesn’t go from point A to point B to point C.

JD: Yeah, it’s not binary. It’s not “This then that.” But don’t they teach you in film schools not to do “This then that?”

MGS: Yeah, especially if you want to be an independent filmmaker!

JD: Why?! We have the binary already. And it’s not something that, at the end of film, I say, “I was just kidding!” In anything that really has to do with another culture that’s not Western, it’s taken as something scary or something to be feared or something that’s being subversive. No, I’m just saying, “Look, hey, man, this is what’s out there.” (In islands off the coast of South Carolina at the turn of the 20th century) Muslims were still practicing their religion, there was West African religions being practiced, there was Christianity, there was Protestantism, all these things were happening. I didn’t create this! It’s there if you want to look at it.

MGS: And it’s still there today.

JD: Exactly. Let’s talk about it. These survivals, these retention patterns, let’s look at them. People look at retention patterns in Roanoke and it’s not scary. So look at all these islands where these people were pure African in many ways. It’s like, “Well, we don’t want to talk about that.”

MGS: The film was also ahead of its time in terms of the subject matter because you’re dealing with the aftermath of slavery, which was not a fashionable subject in cinema in 1991.

JD: I was dealing with the first generation of freeborn African Americans heading towards the Industrial Revolution. I thought that was a great idea. (Chuckles) Instead of showing the whip marks on someone’s back or something, I just made their hands blue. Everyone who was once a slave, their hands were blue from working in the indigo fields. And how is that subversive? I thought it was straightforward. People were saying “Why did you make it so difficult?”

MGS: It’s not difficult but it avoids formulas and stereotypes.

JD: That’s what we’re tasked to do, right? To find other ways of saying the same thing, to find visual metaphors of what we already know so it will have more of an impact and we’ll go “A-ha!” Because, after you watch a couple slave movies, someone’s getting whipped and you become anesthetized. But when you see someone’s hands are blue, you go, “Oh shit! That was some rough work.” And I just wanted people to see it wasn’t just about picking cotton and someone blowing a harmonica. And so the music was totally different too. I’m really proud of John Barnes’ score because he and I sat down together and talked about what’s the sound of New-World music. What came before jazz? He brought in an Iranian santur player, a Pakistani drummer, a Nigerian talking drummer and Santeria, some Cuban singers and dancers. They were recording and dancing at the same time because they couldn’t sing the Santeria songs without dancing.

MGS: You should’ve filmed the recording sessions.

JD: Who knew? Who knew? These were the sounds that we imagined these Africans heard during the Middle Passage because those slave ships were comprised of not just Americans; they were British, Irish, Dutch, Indian, Islamic. There were all kinds of people upstairs. It was three months. What did they do? They sang, they probably played flutes, they had drums. There was a sound that they heard. We created a New-World sound comprised of all these different sounds and instruments just to make it totally immersive and different and to shock you into thinking new thoughts about historical events and issues.

MGS: I read an interview where you said this film was like science fiction.

JD: Yeah, they’re “what-if” scenarios. What if they heard it like this? Rather than just go the same old harmonica route, I was determined I was not going to have a harmonica or a banjo. You know that sound.

MGS: Yeah, it comes from other movies. I’m from North Carolina and I can’t stand to hear a fake southern accent in a movie. Actors doing southern accents always talk like they’re in Gone with the Wind but nobody talks like that in the South.

JD: Gone with the Wind! People from Mississippi speak different from people in Alabama and North Carolina and South Carolina. And you have the Gullah/Geechee dialect, which sounds like Nigerian. The first time I heard it, I walked into a 7-11, as an adult, and I walked in and these guys were talking and I couldn’t understand a word of what they were talking about. And they quickly stopped and went into English because everyone was always hiding if you were an outsider. My grandmother would even say a few things and you’d go, “What did you say?” They wouldn’t share anything because they loved the fact that they had this information but at the same time they’d been told over and over and over that to be a Geechee was to be the lowest of the low in African-American society. If you wanted to insult someone, you called them “low-down Geechee.”

MGS: It’s probably not the same today though, right?

JD: No. It has changed. A lot has changed since Daughters of the Dust too. Take a look at Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Story. Norman Jewison directed the film. It explains it all. It’s set in World War II among black soldiers. One of them was a Geechee who had to be killed because it was time that the Negro race uplifted itself and you couldn’t have those Geechees around. (Laughing) Wow.

MGS: I’d like to ask you about the costumes. They’re very elaborate for an independent film. Was it difficult to recreate period clothes on a low budget?

JD: We had people who sewed in Savannah, we had people sewing all over the place. I had access to a bunch of photographs that were housed at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island. If we had more money, I would’ve been able to make the hats that went along with it. They had black hats – this shiny kind of straw hat but flattop and maybe a ribbon coming off of it or something. We just couldn’t.

MGS: And those photographs were your visual reference for the costumes?

JD: Yes, and also to place them on the beach. Because when I originally wrote it I had them under a big tree – a little trope-ish – and I was like, “Oh! They’re in the sand dunes?” So we shifted to the sand dunes. Just in Mill Valley a few weeks ago, I had several questions about the costumes. People kept saying, “Why are they wearing white dresses?” Once again, that goes back to Gone with the Wind. People are fixated, in a very myopic way, on how African Americans look in historical drama and there’s no reference point where you see them except if you look at – now they have so many historical books and you can see the pictures and they all had the white dresses on. They were seamstresses. So I made sure that all of the dresses that they were wearing, these Gibson Girl-like dresses, were at least 10 to 15 years older, late 1800s style rather than 1902. They were hand-me-downs. They were old and yellowing, some were kind of torn and raggedy. Because they only had two outfits: that would be their summer/Sunday/go-to-meeting outfit. And then you’d have your everyday/work outfit. This was a special day. This was a celebration: it was coming together to say goodbye so everybody was dressed up in their Sunday/go-to-meeting. And that’s usually the same dress that you’re buried in too. Same thing with the suits with the men: they were purposely done so it was like, “This wasn’t made for him. He acquired this.” And the kids really got raggedy. But a lot of people still have problems with the costumes because, in their minds, they’re fixated on the “Mammy” dress and the headwrap, the do-rag, which is not even accurate. There’s so much that’s inaccurate but it’s the standard and so we’re here to change all that. And I think it’s more interesting to see things that are actually different.

MGS: The use of slow-motion is incredible. Did you shoot that in-camera?

JD: Oh, you noticed it? Yes, we had a camera that was a prototype. Sometimes someone would be walking, then she’d wait, then it goes into slow-motion (in the middle of a shot). The speed-aperture control thing used to keep freezing on us. We had a hair-dryer we had to keep putting on it because of the humidity down there because of the ocean. So it would shut down. But that variable-speed motor – it was called speed aperture computer at the time – now they have it together but it was a prototype at the time. That was part of the – I don’t want to say “magic” – but of the voodoo of it, the science fiction. It’s almost imperceptible: someone’s moving and then the motion changes. It does have a visceral effect. It’s like visual dubstep.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Kate Plays Christine (Greene)
2. Easy Money (Signorelli)
3. No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Scorsese)
4. Journey to Italy (Rossellini)
5. Within Our Gates (Micheaux)
6. The Blues Brothers (Landis)
7. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
8. A Short Film About Love (Kieslowski)
9. Thirst (Houlberg)
10. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger)

Filmmaker Interview: Barry Jenkins

I interviewed Barry Jenkins for Time Out during the recently concluded Chicago International Film Festival. The version that is running on the Time Out site was edited for length. I present the uncut version below.


Moonlight, an exhilarating new film about Chiron, a gay African-American male attempting to come to terms with his identity across three different periods of his young life, recently opened in New York and Los Angeles to the highest per-screen-average box office numbers of 2016. It’s not hard to see why: the emotionally affecting drama boasts an uncommon command of film form, wrenching cinematic poetry from an unlikely milieu. Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ second feature will expand to more theaters in the coming weeks and seems a lock for year-end critics awards and perhaps even Oscar glory. I recently had the chance to interview Jenkins when Moonlight screened at the Chicago International Film Festival.

MGS: Moonlight shows how identity intersects with masculinity, sexuality, race and class. Do you think there’s pressure on young men within the black community to act “hard” and is that what prevents Chiron from coming out?

BJ: Yeah, I think it’s the case but I don’t think it’s something that is just born of the black community. I think it’s a response to the outside stimuli, the world around the black community, and this need for black men to sort of protect themselves and their families and the community from the world at large. ‘Cause there are a lot of assumptions that come with blackness. When the world sees a black man walking down the street they assume this or that about him. I think the movie is inherently intersectional but I think the idea with casting three different actors to play Chiron is the notion that when all these assumptions, all these expectations, are constantly projected at a person, it’s hard to self-identify. Because your identity starts to be derived from your reaction to all these things projected on you. So I don’t think it’s born purely within the black community. I think that, in the history of this country, black folks have had to create this network, this sort of shield, just to find a space to be. But it’s funny because I never think of the film as being this intellectual; Chiron is a kid from a particular block with a particular mom going through a particular ordeal. And then I think it lends itself to this kind of unpacking.

MGS: Now that it’s out, you’re kind of being a co-critic and analyzing it.

BJ: Exactly, it becomes a whole different thing. It’s funny you said “co-critic” because I think that I am there to respond and react and help maybe deepen some of the critique and commentary but I feel like I’m no different from the audience. Now I’m watching it too. And we’re all having very nuanced and varied reactions to the same stimulus.

MGS: And maybe your feelings about why you did certain things have changed now that you’re looking at it in retrospect?

BJ: Yeah. People are really smart and they bring their own personal experience to the experience of the characters. Sometimes you do see things – not that you see them for the first time but you see them in a different light. You see them through someone else’s gaze, which is always really interesting. But I sat down and had a really hard talk with myself before the first Telluride screening so that I could at least have a solid memory of what I felt I had done, what I felt it was about.

MGS: Before you heard feedback from everybody?

BJ: Yeah. The more I sat with the film the more I realized it lends itself to “think pieces,” which is sort of a millennial term right now. (chuckles) “It’s a think-piece movie!” But it wasn’t made with think pieces in mind.

MGS: I’ll go out on a limb here. A film it put me in the mind of was Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There.

BJ: Oh yeah, it’s awesome. Oh man, thank God that just came up because that would’ve been a reference and I try to not have something that can so easily become a 1:1, you know? I mean we kind of do the same thing he does in a certain way.

MGS: I was surprised to find myself thinking about it, actually.

BJ: First time that’s ever come up, for sure.

MGS: When a character is played by multiple actors I often find it hard to suspend my disbelief because the actors never look exactly alike and I have a hard time believing it’s the same character. But with I’m Not There and your film, the discrepancy works to their advantage.

BJ: Exactly. But in I’m Not There, I think what Todd was doing – and I don’t know him personally so I can’t really speak for him – but I think there were so many facets of Dylan’s persona, of the character he created, that he literally is a different character each time a different actor embodies him. I think in our film we’re trying to say, “No, he’s the same character but the world has shaped him so much that now he’s become a different person.” I think, intellectually, what Todd was doing is very different than, intellectually, what we were trying to do but they end up at the same place. Yeah, I’m so damn glad that nobody reminded me that we were doing kind of the same thing because I would’ve had a hard time: “Hey, what if a woman plays him in the third chapter?” It would be the same film!

MGS: The film was based on an unproduced play. What was it about the play that spoke to you?

BJ: Well, it wasn’t fully a play. Tarell (McCraney) wrote it actually here in Chicago when he was an undergrad at DePaul. He was applying to Yale for grad school and he had to submit a work sample. So he wrote three things, one of which was this. I think it was never going to be done on the stage. It just wasn’t, you know? There was something very visual and screen-language about it even though I also wouldn’t fully call it a screenplay. It was somewhere between the stage and the screen. The character that Naomie Harris plays, this character Paula, is sort of a composite of my mom and Tarell’s mom. Both our moms went through that sort of ordeal with addiction. And so it kind of grabbed me because I had never talked about that with anybody. Very few people knew that aspect of my biography but one of those people just happened to also know Tarell. So it was sent to me with this idea that there’s something in this that’s very much about you and you should read this. When I did, I was struck by how he knew some of the things he knew – like what it’s like to be a child losing your mother to addiction – but also the way he gave voice to Miami I thought was really dynamic. We realized after I read the piece and after we got together and started communicating that our lives were very, very similar – with this one distinction of sexuality.

MGS: The use of locations is very impressive. We see a side of Miami that’s never been portrayed on screen before. It’s a rough neighborhood but also very beautiful.

BJ: Gorgeous, no, gorgeous. It’s weird being a child growing up being surrounded by such beauty and yet things are so hard. Tarell can talk about this much more eloquently than I can. He describes Miami as “a beautiful nightmare.” It is the strangest thing to know and have access to such sweeping, organic, natural beauty and yet be surrounded by rampant poverty. The distance between those two worlds, physically, is very short – but I think, systemically, is very, very, very far.

MGS: Finding beauty in those locations is one of many ways you avoid clichés. The relationship between Chiron and Juan is also very poignant.

BJ: Which is the bedrock of the piece. Tarell was trying to recall this friendship he had with a local drug dealer. Cliches and stereotypes arise from the outside. When you’re working from the inside, people have names, you know? They have occupations. So you know them organically as fully fleshed-out beings. So it’s very hard to create a stereotype when you’re talking about a particular person – whose name is “Blue” for Tarell. I renamed him Juan because I didn’t want a “Black” (Chiron’s nickname) and “Blue,” although we still keep the line when he tells the story about going to the beach. But the idea was never to intellectually avoid cliché but just to get it right and authentic to Tarell’s experience.

MGS: The musical score is also the opposite of what we might expect to hear in a film taking place in this milieu. It’s orchestral and very lush.

BJ: My filmmaking voice is, I guess I would say, very arthouse, only because the first film festival I ever went to was the Telluride Film Festival back in 2002. And I’ve been there ever since. To me, that’s what cinema is. It’s not necessarily the multiplex although as a kid I watched those films as well. When I got into filmmaking it was this kind of work; I always loved the cinema of Claire Denis.

MGS: She’s a personal hero of mine.

BJ: She’s amazing. She uses score liberally in her films – with the Tindersticks, you know? – although you think of her as this austere, arthouse filmmaker. So that’s my filmmaking voice. My personal voice though is this place that I’m from. It’s Liberty City, this very beautiful nightmare. So it felt organic to me to fuse those two things: the idea of an orchestral score being matched to a story of a kid growing up in Liberty City, it wasn’t extraordinary to me. It’s just the way those two voices came together.

MGS: But there’s also hip-hop in the film and Caetano Veloso’s “Cucurrucucu Paloma”…

BJ: Exactly, an overt homage to Happy Together by Wong Kar-Wai, which I love. I love that we had the opportunity to do that because here’s this film about these two men from Hong Kong living in Argentina made in 1997 and here I have this film about these two black men from the hood. They’re worlds apart and yet they’re feeling the same things. So for 30 seconds I wanted to express “This is the same thing.”

MGS: And you use it during the road-trip part of the film, which makes the connection explicit.

BJ: Exactly. The world isn’t that big. It’s actually quite small. We speak different languages but we feel the same things, you know? But with the hip-hop music, there’s this thing called “chopped and screwed.”

MGS: “Chopped and screwed?”

BJ: Yeah, you take the music, you break it, you bend it, you slow it down. The voices get lower, the lyrics come at you at a slower pace. So what we did was, as the film goes on and the hip-hop gets more chopped and screwed, the character becomes more muscular, the orchestra becomes chopped and screwed also. So we’re bending oboes, we’re bending cellos, we’re bending violins. We’re pitching them way down and creating the same kind of rumble with a chamber orchestra that you get from a car blasting hip-hop going down the alley.

MGS: I’d like to talk about the visual style. I know you’ve cited Hou Hsiao-Hsien as an influence and I was impressed by your command of film form. This is such a confidently made film and the camera movement is very elaborate. Do you think about visual style when you’re writing?

BJ: Absolutely. I do a whole first-pass shot-list by myself and then I do a second-pass shot-list with the cinematographer. With this film it was great because I knew the locations. So I could really see it, which is always a plus. Normally, you’re shot-listing against air and then you find locations and you adjust. And we did some of that but because we went back home, I knew where we were going to end up. There’s some very heavy subject matter in this film; normally, you’d have this very documentary, 100% handheld, Neorealist kind of thing. But when the piece first came to me, what I said to Tarell was “This feels like a fever dream.” And so I wanted to root the audience visually in the perspective of Chiron. Once the D.P., James Laxton, and I really made a commitment to that, it kind of freed us to do certain things that wouldn’t normally fit this sort of “coming of age” this or Neorealist that or Miserabilist that. We were like, “No, we want the audience to be immersed in Chiron’s emotional state.” So there were periods where we were allowed to, we felt like, swirl the room. When I say “the room,” I mean the audience in the auditorium. We’re going to swirl the room, you know? And they’re going to be with it because at this point they’ll know: we’re seeing this because Chiron is feeling it.

MGS: There’s a lyricism to it and an elegance.

BJ: Yeah, and we tried to not be too overt or heavy handed with it. The one thing I did want – ‘cause my first film, Medicine for Melancholy, is very desaturated, and my memory of Miami is of a very colorful, rich, saturated place where the skin shines – I told James, “You have license to make the skin shine. And let’s lean into the colors.” It was a very fluid process. I’d say 75% of the film we planned out and we knew. It fluctuated somewhat but that was what we did. And the other 25%, that was like, “Go with God.” The swimming scene? It was like, “Go with God.”

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A F***load of Scotch Tape (Grant)
2. Bloomin Mud Shuffle (Ross)
3. Thao’s Library (Van Meter)
4. Halloween (Carpenter)
5. The Ghost Writer (Polanski)
6. Murder, My Sweet (Dmytryk)
7. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini)
8. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Altman)
9. The Last Laugh (Murnau)
10. Aquarius (Mendonça)

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