Q&A with Boots Riley, Lakeith Stanfield, and Jermaine Fowler

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Sorry to Bother You.

Let’s start from the beginning. Where did this come from?
Boots Riley: I knew I wanted to write something that happened in the world of telemarketing. And, I knew that there was going to be a struggle that Cash had to decide what side he was on. I knew the first scene because it happened to my friend, Rob Ebo, that’s how he got all his jobs, and he never got caught. Then I knew the compliment argument scene because that happened to my brother many years ago, and I was like, “I’m putting that in a movie one day.” But, other than that I didn’t know anything. I just took the ride with Cash. I knew there were a lot of ideas I wanted to talk about, but I didn’t want people to just be like, “he’s going through this hyper realistic trial and tribulation. You’re supposed to have empathy with him, and you see the sweat coming off of his brow. There’s steam somewhere in the background.” I didn’t want that. So, I wanted to put these ideas in and avoid cliché. I found that if I bit the reality of that world, it would point out something in our world way more realistic than those hyper-realistic movies. Everything crazy that happened in there was something that needed to happen. I wanted the audience to go through the emotional changes that Cash was going through, not just watch him and empathize him. I wanted to take people through an experience that was similar to what happens when you find out new ideas that change your view of the whole world.

“I can’t believe someone who is this interesting and free exists.”

Lakeith, how did you connect to the material?
Lakeith Stanfield: From my perspective, I just knew Boots had really interesting ideas. When I met him, as you can see, he’s almost a fictional character within himself. I can’t believe someone who is this interesting and free exists. So, it took me very little time talking to him to realize that there would be something valuable gained in working with him. I thought this would challenge me as far as being the top person in the movie as far as screen time is concerned. But, also the journey would stretch me in ways I haven’t been stretched before. I was interested to go on that journey, face those challenges, and try and build this thing with him. I wasn’t concerned about whether or not it would even be seen, whether or not there would be money involved, because the journey is what’s important to me. Thankfully, I was in a position where I was comfortable enough to make that decision. You’re not always, and sometimes you’re forced and pushed in different places. I was comfortable, and this opportunity came to me. After reading this crazy shit, I was like there’s no way I cannot explore this.

Jermaine, talk about your chemistry with Lakeith.
Jermaine Fowler: Well, there are a lot of people that remind me of Cash growing up in Maryland. There are people who got positions and jobs that they swore if they worked there long enough, they would get a higher position. Sometimes that worked out and they are still at that mall in Maryland. It just sucks. So, I saw that desperation in Cash’s eyes. Every time we would do scenes together it would feed me, because it was an emotional investment I had with this character. I feel like I have known him for a very long time, man. I got on set, and I dapped him up for the first time. I think he was wearing that wig too, and I was like you grew that fast! Then the second time I saw him it was off. It was my first movie, man, so I just didn’t want to look like a schlub next to this guy. He’s an amazing actor. He takes it so seriously. The fact that Keith, Tessa Thompson, and Steven Yeun have done monumental things like big, blockbuster movies and popular TV shows and brought the same level of professionalism, collaboration, and open-mindedness to this movie spoke volume to their characters. They are so good.

Boots, what was the hardest scene to direct in the film?
BR: There were many times while we were filming where I was like, “that’s bad writing.” With pacing and stuff I always like it to be something connected to story. I wanted to have some motivation so that it’s more natural. We did a lot of takes on that scene, because I think that was honestly the least clear scene for me. It was also pivotal to me, because he was explaining that he wasn’t changing for her. The things that you would think might be more difficult weren’t because I had a clearer idea of what I wanted.

Jermaine, what was the hardest scene for you in the film?
JF: The first scene I had to shoot was the last scene in the movie where me and Lakeith make up. He gives his Bugatti, or Maserati, or whatever it was. I was intimidated, because I didn’t want to ruin Boots’ movie. I get there and Boots walks up to me and tells me he’s watched my stuff. He says that I’m funny, but in this scene we’re filming a conversation and the camera picks up every little thing. I realize I have a big pimple on my forehead during the scene. So, I go to makeup, and I’m like can you remove this pimple right here? They tell me that Boots wants to keep the makeup and everything minimal, because he wants everything to look real. So, I had to do the scene with Keith, and it was the first time I ever met him. I’m doing the best I can, but half the time I’m thinking about the pimple on my forehead.

Q&A with Morgan Neville

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Why did you want to make this film?
Morgan Neville: I made the film not because I wanted to go back, but because I wanted to talk about today. A couple of years ago, through a number of circumstances, I found myself watching some Mr. Rogers speeches on Youtube late one night. And the thing that struck me about it was that this is a voice I didn’t hear in our culture at all today. And so part of it was me just starting to chase that voice. So having a grown up voice that’s looking out for the longterm health and fitness of our culture is the kind of voice that I’ve been craving. I’ve made a number of films over the years about similar issues. I’ve always been looking for these discussions of culture as a common meeting place and people who can take some moral responsibility for things. This has been in the air for a long time, the coarsening of our civil discourse. Really what Fred Rogers is talking about at its core is how we live together in a neighborhood. What’s the social compact by which we make neighborhoods and communities and societies? These things have to be nurtured and not taken for granted. And I think that was really kind of the starting point of me wanting to make this film.

“I wanted the film at the end to turn to the audience and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ “

What do you mean when you call Mr. Rogers “radical?”
MN: I think he would have called it “grace.” Grace was a concept he talked about all the time. And really the fundamental biblical concept of grace is the undeserved goodness bestowed upon you by God. So it’s the idea that your God is good to others, not because we can get something back. This idea of that selfless kindness. I can’t think of a better formula for a healthy society, or neighborhood, then to put that kind of positivity into it. We live in a day and age that is often disgraceful. We have a culture that tends to incentivize disgraceful behavior because we’re programmed as people to respond more to fear than to love. That’s the battle he had. The battle I think we all have to some extent. I just wanted to start a conversation or continue a conversation with the film. I didn’t want the film to wrap anything up with a bow and say, “there you go, you know, Mr. Rogers is going to save us,” because he’s not. I wanted the film at the end to turn to the audience and say, “What are you going to do about it?”

From the thousands of hours of imagery to go through, can you talk about the choices that you made in terms of storytelling?
MN: One initial challenge with a film like this is, “How do you make a cinematic story out of a television character?” You really have to kind of use everything from score to animation to archive to really make it come alive. I went to Pittsburgh and met Joanne Rogers you know, and my original pitch to her was that I don’t want to make a film about the biography of Fred Rogers. I want to make a film about the ideas of Fred Rogers. It’s the ideas that have a dramatic story. One of the questions I had at the beginning is “How do you make a dramatic story of somebody who’s culturally perceived as the quintessential two dimensional character who has no obvious character development?” Now the reality is when you put it under a microscope, there are all kinds of changes, and he was not at peace. He was a bit of a tortured artist himself. Once I started to grapple with all that, we saw how he could shape the film really around ideas. And those ideas are completely contemporary in many ways. I mean many people said this is the most contemporary thing you’ve ever done, even though he started 50 years ago on television. A lot of biographical documentaries tend to fall into kind of a Wikipedia trap. I kind of wanted to throw all that aside and say “What’s the story as the ideas move?” There were other great things, great interesting things that we didn’t put it in the film just because they were factual and I felt it didn’t carry the story and the character.

What did you learn about Fred Rogers and how has your view changed about him?
MN: At one point he was getting more letters than anybody in America and he responded to every letter he got because if a child wrote him a letter, it’s because that child believed they had a relationship. A real relationship. And Fred honored that by responding to every letter. I don’t think he looked at it as a chore. I think he actually looked at it as a something that was as important as the television show. He put out this collection of letters called “Dear Mr. Rogers.” And the first letter of the book is pretty much the fundamental question everybody has. The letter’s from a five year old boy and it says, “Dear Mr. Rogers, are you for real? Are you for real or not?” I think the big revelation is that yes, he’s for real. That everything we discovered about Fred Rogers was never shocking, but it always surprising. He was a pacifist vegetarian who said he didn’t want to eat anything that had a mother. He spoke five languages. He would read the Bible most mornings in Hebrew or Greek. He studied the world’s religions. He was deeply curious. He was a seeker. I hoped Mr. Rogers would be like that. He’s one of the very few, maybe the only TV character I can think of where the person is actually much more impressive than the character. The real Fred Rogers was a much more willful, thoughtful person than the character. Something simple and deep was what he was always trying to do. That was his superpower, and he just keeps coming back to that. At the end of the day, that’s the thing that I found really just profoundly affecting for me and hopefully for the film because that that’s the kind of voice that I just don’t hear a whole lot of right now.

Q&A with Toni Collette and Ari Aster

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Hereditary.

This is something of a personal story, correct?
Ari Aster: The beautiful thing about genre filmmaking and the horror genre in general is that you can take a personal story or feeling that you need to work through and push it through this filter, and out comes something else. You just have to find the catharsis in that story, and if it’s in the horror genre, maybe the catharsis is horrible, but it’s still cathartic. I’d spent five years at least after graduating from the AFI conservatory, just trying to get different features off the ground and they’re all of a similar scope to this, but they belonged to antiquated genres. I figured that it would be easier to get a horror movie financed and that’s where it started. It started pretty cynically! And then from there, the question was, “Okay, well, what do I want from the genre? What are my fears?” I guess I just wanted to make a film that belonged to something of an older tradition which it’s still being honored by other films. One that took its time and it was rooted in character and was functioning as a vivid family drama before even thinking about horror elements. And so that’s sort of where that started.

“Sometimes people are taken down and they don’t get back up.”

What drew you to the character of Annie when you first read the script?
Toni Collette: I started reading it and I thought that there had been some kind of mistake because I was kind of drawn into this beautiful, painful look at what grief is, and then of course I finished the script and you go on an amazing roller coaster full of surprises, and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve actually found something original. This is actually original.” And how miraculous it was that these elements were able to be married together so seamlessly in this story. I love that my character, all of the characters, but obviously specifically my character, was so real and raw and complicated and horrible and overwhelmed and loving and harsh. I think every actor longs for material where they get to really go for it, and this was my opportunity for that.

It seems like the things happening to the characters are very much out of their control, that there are very few decisions made by them. Why is that?
AA: From the beginning I described this to people as an existential horror film that was sort of praying on fears that don’t have a remedy. What do you do with the fear of death? What do you do with the suspicion that you don’t really know the people that you’re closest to? The other way that I was describing it was as a family tragedy that kind of curdles into a nightmare in the way that life can often feel like a nightmare when disaster strikes. The passiveness of the characters reflects my philosophy, which is ultimately that we are really just kites in the wind and we only have so much agency. Ultimately we are all doomed or not based on our outlook. I’m not a particularly religious person so I’ll have to find my way into accepting all of the inevitable stuff.

What preparation did you doing for your character?
TC: The script was just so clear, to me it was evident. Everything that you see on the screen was absolutely considered. Ari is one of the most meticulously prepared directors I’ve ever worked with. I had pages and pages and pages and pages of backstory sent to me. We had several conversations, but to be honest, when I read it, I wasn’t looking to do anything like this and even as we were shooting it, I was trying to avoid it. It felt so clear, so alive and so sad and confronting that I pushed it away. I just pushed it away until Ari would call action. Then I would let it out and it would seem very close to the surface because anything you push away is only gonna get bigger. And then he called cut and you know I just was able to shake it off somehow.

How did you find that balance of grotesque imagery and good storytelling?
AA: You’re going by instinct. All you have as a filmmaker is your judgment. And I don’t like gratuitous stuff, but I like when films hit as hard as they possibly can when they should. I like catharsis and I see this film as owing just as much of a debt to the domestic melodrama as to the horror movie. And in that way, the film aims to sort of honor the extreme emotions that these people are going through by being as big as them, right? By matching the content with the form. When I’m thinking about how am I going to hit the audience with the depth of this person that is then going to linger over the rest of the film and be the catalyst for everything that these people are going to go through, I wanted to play in your head because I want to put you in the family’s shoes. I think it was definitely a mission for me that I wanted to make a film that was very seriously about suffering. I wanted to take suffering seriously. I think there is this trend in American storytelling that is part of this American exceptionalist thing where if we’re going to do a film about a family tragedy, then we’ll have a family, they’ll separate, communication might break down, it’s going to get hairy for a while, but in the end they’re going to get brought back together, which is going to be for the best and their bonds are going to be strengthened and fortified by the adversity. And you know, there’s nothing inherently false about that. We need to hope. But some people don’t recover from some things. Sometimes people are taken down and they don’t get back up. If I made it as a drama, good luck getting people into the theater. But suddenly, what serves as a deterrent for an audience in one genre becomes a virtue in another. I’m able to tell that story in as honest a way as I can.

How was it like working with such a great supporting cast?
TC: In terms of Ari’s specificity, he really did hand pick every actor as well as key crew member. Ann Dowd is an angel. She’s such a pleasure to work with. She’s so open, so present, and she allows moments to kind of erupt on their own. I hadn’t seen The Handmaid’s Tale before working with her and I’m very glad because it would’ve made me feel slightly different. Gabriel Byrne, total dreamboat. He’s grounded, so funny, so generous. And he was my pal. We would sit on the stage and know exactly what we were thinking and it was really great to share this with him. Millie Shapiro was fourteen. This was her very first film. She’s done a couple of shows on Broadway. We had a shared rehearsal together, and she was just so astute. She loves horror films. She was just very conscious of her options in how to portray certain things. She really, really created something quite amazing. Alex, who plays Peter, just loves turning itself inside out. He’s incredible in the movie and I think when I was that age, I think I liked to kind of go there as well, but I’m too old for that. It was something to behold. I think we all felt really touched that we were chosen to work with this material because it felt original. We all got to really steep ourselves, saturate ourselves in something that deeply special we were making. It was bloody hard. It was exhausting. It was a beautiful challenge and really satisfying.

Q&A with Claire Danes, Octavia Spencer, Daniel Pearle, and Silas Howard

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of A Kid Like Jake.

How did you end up bringing it to the screen?
Daniel Pearle: Jim Parsons read the play and he had just started his company, That’s Wonderful. He was looking for material, he liked the play, and wanted it to be a film. So we met to talk first, and he basically expressed his enthusiasm to be in the movie but also to act as a producer. So he optioned the play and hired me to write the adaptation. And so I wrote the first couple drafts and then Silas was brought on a year after that. We had a script that Silas and I collaborated on and the cast started coming together.

Silas Howard: I was brought on and I had some ideas for some changes, but I wanted to see how Daniel and I would work together. We worked fabulously.

DP: Silas had some really wonderful ideas and questions that helped shape the adaptation. He also had a lot of ideas that I was curious about in terms of how the film would look. It obviously influenced how I wanted to make certain choices so that I when writing the screenplay, we were seeing at the same movie. We were eerily in sync!

SH: Claire and Jim were already attached when I came on, and then our very first choice was Octavia. It just organically came together and it felt like such an incredible conversation, the whole team. Everybody was so invested and had a particular point of view in the project. So for me as a director that was just an embarrassment of riches.

“It’s very much about the adult’s interpretation of a child and their projections onto a child.”

As cast members, can you talk about the experience of working with such nuanced material?
Claire Danes: One of the most exciting elements of the project was just how wonderful the dialogue was and how rich the scenes were and how we were able to relate to another person for an extended period. You know there weren’t many diversions. We just got to be present with another person many times over. And that’s what I’m always most interested in as an actor.

Octavia Spencer: I second that. It was wonderful character development in that we actually got to sit down and actually have conversations in a way that was real. One of the reasons I was taken with the script besides the story itself was the really beautiful intimate scenes. We all had a chance to have intimate beautiful conversation and it was just two people talking about real issues and that I love that.

Why is the title character minimally visible on screen in the film?
DP: Silas and I obviously talked a lot about that. That was the biggest creative challenge. The play is just four characters and the fact that Jake is never seen is quite integral to the conceit of the play. It’s very much about the adult’s interpretation of a child and their projections onto a child. It was very much about the adults, but he’s obviously the nexus for this whole story. For the film we wanted want to make sure that he felt real, like a real character. I think not seeing him at all in the film would have felt a little bit forced and kind of creepy.

SH: Just to add to that, for myself as a trans person, I thought that at first it was counterintuitive to not show the gender. It became the most political decision on the film to actually not look at this four year old, five year old, and decide what this kid is. That’s not the conversation that we want to have. You know we want to really look at how the pressures of society play out and come into the homes of a family. And so for myself, as someone who’s trans and was gender nonconforming for most of my life, it really wasn’t so much about that, but about the ways that society puts pressures on all of us as early as childhood. But I think it was also important that our kid actor was really excited. You know he really loves dresses and he loves beautiful things as he says. That added a lot to the feel of his joy and innocence.

Can you talk some about the extra characters that you added to the film?
DP: One thing that was helpful creatively for me was the fact that in the play there’s four characters on stage, but there are several characters that are only mentioned. As a writer, you still kind of create them in your head even if you’re never going to see them. Obviously Jake is the biggest, most pivotal example. I think in my head they felt sort of like glimmers already. How do we open it up without feeling forced or inorganic and making sure that everyone who was in this film had a reason to be there? I didn’t just feel like, “it’s movie so it has to be bigger.” It was a lot of trial and error. So it definitely took some time but it was also a lot of fun to populate the world.

SH: We worked together on this. Whether it was talking to Priyanka about her character or the mom, Anne Dowd’s character, I felt like there was such a great opportunity. We’ve learned so much. I mean, I’m constantly in conversation with my family whether I know it or not. Just to be able to see the mom use every minute of her screen time was great. Every actor didn’t waste a second in terms of making a decision. And every character had some flaw in a good way. It was nice that it wasn’t going to be a “message movie.” I really wanted it to feel like a human story.

Can you talk a bit about how your experience in New York influenced the film?
DP: My day job since I moved to New York until very recently was tutoring at the high school level. That was at some public school gifted program, and that was how I kept myself afloat in grad school for the first six or seven years that I was writing. What I was privy to, especially with the private school Manhattan families, was the insane amount of pressure when it came to applying to college. What struck me was that all of the fundamental separation anxiety about seeing kids grow up was getting channeled into everything the parents felt they could control. Which were college essays and test prep and all that stuff. That was certainly one source of inspiration. I think that anytime parents are under pressure to do right by their kids you know it’s probably both hilarious and poignant. Their kids are about to leave and grow up. Because they sort of couldn’t deal with that, they would really freak out about all the stuff that they felt they could control. And so I think when I was doing research for the play, I realized, “oh god it happens at the kindergarten level, too.” That’s just so horrifying.

SH: I grew up pretty working class. I went to a lot of terrible schools that were not supportive of getting into colleges. The teachers weren’t supported to do the work that they could do. And also I could feel that pressure to conform, as a kid who didn’t. I was really interested in taking this idea and the messiness of it all. It’s hard in this country because if you don’t fit in a box, there’s just so much pressure. There’s not room for ambiguity. There’s a lot of pressure to do it the right way. What I love about this script is that there was a lot of fumbling and a lot of making mistakes to figure things out, to make more room for difference. Yeah it’s complicated. I think it’s easy to say, “I support this and I support that and I could post this and post that.” But I think it’s really a big ask when your kid is at risk, and as a kid who wasn’t gender conforming, I have a lot of compassion for this struggle. And as a society that actually still really shames, there’s a lot of risk to support your child to go out in the world and not fit in. I think this can be very painful. That was interesting to me.

Q&A with Ethan Hawke and Paul Schrader

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of First Reformed.

What was the genesis of this film?
Paul Schrader: The process began about three years ago when I was giving an award for Pawel Pawlikowski, for his film Ida at the New York Society of Film Critics. I liked Ida a lot. Ida is also a square format, a locked off movie. And we’re talking about spiritual cinema and also about the lower cost of filmmaking whereby certain films that were financially irresponsible in the past might not be so irresponsible today. And I was walking back uptown and I said, “You know, you’re going to be 70 next year. It’s time. It’s time to write that movie that you have been swearing for decades you would never write.” That’s how that process started.

How was it shooting for such a short period of time?
PS: Well when you’re involved in this kind of film, you are involved with various withholding devices. You’re holding back things that the viewer has expected in timing or in music, pacing, and also in performance. The first time I met with Ethan, I said to him, “You know this is a laid back performance,” and he knew exactly what I meant.

Ethan Hawke: There’s a certain kind of performance that’s involved in entertaining you, where you go meet the audience, and there’s another one where you retreat and you ask them to follow you. And everything that Paul did, the writing, the filmmaking, everything was oriented towards a different way of entertaining. It was a wonderful experience. It’s really exciting to be acting for someone who has studied film. People love to talk about how many days you shot a movie as if it has anything to do with it at all. Sometimes you can spend years preparing for a movie and you might shoot it in a few days, but it doesn’t mean you haven’t spent years working on it. I’ve been on movies that have shot 100 Days, and they haven’t put any thought into it, and they’re just a big mess. I wish they shot for 20 days!

“The secret of theft, which is also called ‘creativity,’ is you have to steal a bit from a lot of different places.”

Throughout the film, there are references to other movies, but it feels as if those references are owned by you both. Why does this film feel as if it has transcended its influences?
PS: The secret of theft, which is also called “creativity,” is you have to steal a bit from a lot of different places. You can’t go to the same 7/11 every time because they’ll catch you. So you go to the photo shop, and you go to the gas station, and you go to that little hot dog stand that nobody goes to and by the end you’ve stolen enough stuff from enough places that people think its yours.

EH: Another way of saying that is… Getting an education. One of the things that frustrates me is I’ll be on a film set and I’ll say, “Well, you know this scene is kind of reminiscent of Five Easy Pieces.” And perfectly legitimate film directors will not know what that is. It’s really frustrating to me. The quality of the writing dissipates, and the quality of the performance dissipates when people aren’t educating themselves. A good rock and roller knows the history of music. You steal from this, and you take a little pieces of this chord progression, and in the process of doing that, you come out. Your own voice appears.

When you were reading and writing the script did you have an idea that it would be so prescient?
PS: Obviously the situation with our physical world has not been good for some time, and that I don’t think is going to change. But let me take issue with you there because we’re going now in kind of a weird spot in independent movies. It’s so easy to make films. Maybe 15,000 or 20,000 films get made a year in this country alone. And of those 15,000, ten of them rise above the crowd and get noticed. How do you get to be one of those ten films? And I’ve sort of learned over the last six months that first you go through the gatekeepers, which are the festivals. Then you go through all kinds of special programs, and we showed it to South by Southwest in March. Now it’s been shown at maybe twenty-five festivals around the world. And I went to a meeting at A24 and that’s when they decided to give it the theatrical push. They waited six months just to see if it would endure and run the gauntlet. Will people still be interested in it after two more weeks– two more months? And so it is this exhausting process to prove that you are worthy of the investment of a theatrical feature. A company like A24 probably puts a push on maybe four films a year.

Could you talk about the opening of the film and why openings are so important?
PS: You teach the audience how to watch yourself and that’s why I like credits in the front of the movie because you get two or three minutes. They don’t hold you responsible for the credits. And you can use those two or three minutes to teach them about your film. Whether it be zany credits or melancholic credits. The idea behind the film was it was going to be all locked off. And then I got to this location and said, “OK. That shot just cries out as you walk up the hill.” And so instead stealing the first shot from Winter Light, I stole the first shot from Silent Light, the Reygadas film where he had that long, long incremental push forward at daybreak. But everything else was locked down. No pan, no tilt, no overs. When doing so it kind of creates an uncomfortable feeling.