August 10, 2018
‘Blindspotting’ Producers Jess and Keith Calder On the 10-Year Journey to Bring This Film to Life [Interview]
Blindspotting has been a labor of love for over a decade. It shows in the end result. Director Carlos López Estrada‘s hard-hitting drama, which also has a lot of laughs, has been drawing strong reactions ever since it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. “Sharp, stylish, and sincere, Blindspotting may hook you with its flashy wordplay and slick visuals, but this is a hilarious and vital movie of the moment that’s burning with empathy,” our own Ben Pearson wrote in his review from the fest.
The more than warmly received drama hails from producers Jess and Keith Calder, the two behind Snoot Entertainment. Snoot Entertainment has been making films with strong voices behind them since their inception. From Anomalisa to The Guest to Blindspotting, the Calders have been putting out the sort of creative and imaginative movies we’re always craving. The two producers recently took the time to take us behind the scenes of Blindspotting, from the project’s development, shooting in Oakland, and more.
Jess, I know the project started from you sending an email to [star and co-writer] Rafeal [Casal]. How happy are you that you sent that email?
Jess: It’s been over a decade of friendship, and this amazing creative partnership. I’m very excited that I found him on YouTube and that he was receptive. It’s funny, because I finally got a chance to really spend some time with his mother, and she revealed to me that she didn’t actually want him to go and meet with me initially, because she thought I was a creepy older woman stalking her young son. She was like, “I’m so relieved that you ended up not being a psychopath.” I’m like, “Thanks. I’m pleased, too, because if you had said don’t go, then we wouldn’t be here.” It’s been an incredible journey.
What initially spoke to you about his writing? What did you connect with?
Jess: Have you ever had a chance to look at his work from when he was younger, by any chance?
I haven’t yet. Blindspotting was my first introduction.
Jess: Well, it’s a great introduction. The thing that I thought was so incredible about what he does in the film and also in his early work is that he speaks with a very honest emotion that I thought was so specific and unique to who he is. On top of that, if you watch his earlier work, it’s clear to me that he actually really cares about how he commands an audience, so that he is a complete storyteller in that he’s telling you a compelling story, but he’s also keeping in mind, “How can I hook you? How can I draw you in in an emotional way?” For me, seeing that was definitely a lightning bolt moment. I think so many times you only get one or the other. You get someone who is an amazing artist, but isn’t able to command the attention of an audience, or you have someone who only cares about, like, “Oh, I just want to make something that speaks to everyone. With Rafael, the thing that you can tell even with his early work, is that he cares about both
I’m sure it’s a case by case basis, but what usually makes you both want to work with someone and think, “This is a voice I want to support”?
Keith: I think for us a lot of the time, it’s just having a bunch of more informal conversations about what we all love about movies or stories or books or plays and figuring out if we have a shared taste. It doesn’t have to be the same taste, but if we think the same things are important in equal measures, I think that would be part of it. I think that it’s also just getting a sense of if we would work well together. There’s a lot of different ways that that can manifest. You’re out here trying to figure out if you are puzzle pieces that fit each other, in a way. It’s like, this area where maybe you aren’t experienced, and certain areas that we have a lot of experience in or are the areas where Jess and I really know how something should be done.
But a lot of it is that, it’s just feeling each other out and figuring out if you think you’ll be good collaborators. Then, once that’s done, then it’s about figuring out, well, what’s the thing you want to collaborate on. A lot of that for us is more about figuring out would we work well together in a pleasant way, but also would we work well together in a way that we could enhance each other’s creative abilities in the process of making movies. Then, it’s about figuring out what we actually want to all say.
Were there any other ideas discussed at that initial lunch meeting you had with Rafael?
Keith: This was a long time ago, so it’s hard to remember specifics, but I think a lot of it was Jess and I both were excited about the idea of making a movie universe in a way that musicals tend to use song.
Jess: Yeah. The initial idea was that’s pretty much your story that you are passionate about telling, where you can use this verse kind of language to allow the characters in the film to express their emotion in a way that hasn’t ever been seen on film, that was the initial talk. Then about, I want to say, a couple months later, he sent me a poem called Monster, which I think you can actually find his performance of online still. It’s basically all about him being frustrated and sad that so many of his friends were dying young in Oakland, and how he’s dealing with all of those emotions. I know that for a while, that was what we were trying to circle around. I mean, I don’t think we had a specific idea of what it was, but it was more of the steam from that initial piece of work and how we could translate that.
Keith: Yeah. I think style-wise we ended up very different from this, but I think one of the initial films we talked about a lot was Once, and how Once approached music and approached empathy for characters, and the idea that everyone within a world can be trying to be good to each other, but that it still can sometimes not work out well. I think the other thing we were talking about a lot at the time … I think some of that stuff is still in the DNA of the movie, but I think it went in a very different direction, as it continued to devlop.
I read the idea was floated around of doing the movie entirely in verse. Was that version ever written?
Jess: There was never a full draft. There were scenes of that that were sent over where they all spoke in verse. I think the thing that we were having a hard time with was how to make it feel organic. A lot of people wonder why it took over a decade and there were a lot of reasons why, and timing-wise too, but the other thing was that the puzzle of making someone speak in verse sound like a natural thing, it just took a long time to feel natural and organic.
Keith: I think the thing we kept running into is that we knew we wanted them to be intentionally speaking in verse at certain points. If they were also speaking in verse as the natural fabric of the movie, then it became really weird to differentiate when they were speaking in verse because they are choosing to speak in verse and when they’re choosing to speak in verse because that’s what the language of the movie is. It was an interesting experiment, and I think it helped us to figure out what doesn’t work. Ultimately, I think it wouldn’t have really worked if the movie was all in verse that way.
Jess: I do know that one of the first official emails that we sent back and forth, all of us said that we definitely didn’t want to do a movie about them being aspiring rappers or musicians, which would’ve been a very easy way to get that verse in. We all felt like it’s been done, and there was nothing new that we felt like we could add.
When you first started going to studios, Lionsgate was one of the ones that turned the project down, and you both knew you’d have to make it happen yourselves. When you get those type of responses from studios, like “Are you sure about this?”, how do you both look at that reaction?
Jess: As a challenge. It’s almost like they’re throwing us a challenge.
Keith: I see it as a challenge. I feel like the term that gets used a lot in the studio system is that a project is “execution dependent,” meaning that, oh, it needs to be done really well in order for it to have an audience. I think that’s just crazy. To a certain degree, isn’t every movie execution dependent? If you made a terrible movie, surely that has an impact on how well it does. But I think that there are certain types of movies where that’s just the way that people think about it. I do think that it’s the type of movie that we tend to get drawn to a lot, because we do like doing movies that have an inherently challenging aspect to them. But yeah, I mean, I’d much rather a studio could read the script and say it’s execution dependent than they read a script and say, “Yeah, this is bad.” Because they’re not saying it’s bad. They’re saying this is really good, and the filmmaking needs to be at the same level as what the script is in order for it to work.
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