The Obituary of Tunde Johnson: Interview w/Director Ali LeRoi & Writer Stanley Kalu

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Interview by Brian Taylor

Q (Brian): Stanley, I want to start with you. How did you come up with the idea for this film?

A (Stanley): I grew up in Nigeria and I lived all around Africa for my whole life, so I was always majority. Coming to America, it was a very traumatic thing when you look like me- dark skinned, black- and I came to this country and I saw people that look like me die every day on TV. Not only that but the systems in place, I felt like they were robbing me of individuality because I suddenly became a monolithic blackness and that really made me depressed for about two years of college because I couldn’t understand the system that I had adopted. Does that make sense? [Brian answers Yes] So I wrote Tunde to try and parse that and to try and understand America and it was a crazy thing where I saw institutional violence against black bodies and the African spaces that I occupied I had seen institutional violence against queer folk- in the same version, same way- just like consistent murder and the genocides that are happening. So, when I came here, I was like, I have such a responsibility to bridge the cultures that I existed in. And just try and understand for myself why an identity you cannot control is under attack and I think that is fundamentally such a sad, sad, sad thing that people who function this way- cannot control it- you cannot control the color of your skin and you cannot control your sexuality. Why is violence based upon those bodies? It’s not their fault. They didn’t do anything. I think that’s where Tunde comes from for me. 

Q (Brian):Okay and Ali, how did you get involved in this film?

A (Ali):Well, you know, the screenplay came from that he had submitted to the Launch Screenplay Competition and I was one of the judges. And during that process I was a big advocate for this script. I just felt like it was very different from a lot of the other material and in terms of what the competition was about, is finding a movie that you could make. Just because of the time loop sequence and how that lent itself to a certain type of production, that was a big plus. The material was stellar, and it just felt like a lot of the other material we saw would have an opportunity, you know, or I had seen things like it before and this was special. He [Stanley] won the competition and I walked away; I had no idea that I would be directing this film. Then Zach Green and Jason Shuman, the producers, called me maybe a month or a month a half later and asked me if I wanted to do it. 

Q (Brian): Pretty simple. So, I actually wanted to talk about the narrative. The story is told where it always kind of feels like it’s moving forward. It’s different from the time of the film, a lot of those will go back and forward to like the same spot and the whole déjà vu world comes in. That’s really never done with your film. What was the reason for that?

A (Ali):First of all, audiences are smart. Right? And so, this wasn’t a solve the puzzle movie, right. Like Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow is kind of like a solve the puzzle movie, you know this step this time of day, that step that time and Oooh I messed up this time and then they walk through the exact same thing again but this time he does something different- so like a big action packed video game. This is actually a drama in the truest sense where it lives and it breathes and even though you go back to the beginning of this time loop, where he learns things and makes different choices, the reality is he doesn’t know how it’s going to end up. He doesn’t know until he gets there so he has to solve the problem like we have to solve the problem. Like, I’m caught in this thing and I don’t know how to get out. And it’s not until he gets to a point where a thing becomes crystal clear to him, that he goes “Oh now it’s over”. So in terms of visualizing that, I just feel like the audience was smart enough to understand he has this death, he awakens and we can assume that there are parts of his day that are relatively the same but at that point in which something appears on the screen that is different than what we’ve seen before. Sometimes we show you little things that are different and not big moments, sometimes they’re just little things that take him on an entirely different path. And once he goes down that path, he doesn’t really know what’s going to happen but again he doesn’t know what the goal is, so we don’t know what the goal is and it happens when it happens. 

Q (Brian: Something that struck me while I was watching the film was that you didn’t really make the way Tunde died important but just that he did, you know the day restarted and everything. Was there anything important about that not showing the actual deaths except the first one?

A (Ali): The reason for that is, first of all, you can overwhelm your audience, right? They can become tired of seeing the same thing over and over again that keeps presenting it the same way. But the other thing, which is actually more important, is that out of the gate that first death is immediate, it’s very present, it’s bloody, it’s visceral and it’s there to shock and scare you, get your attention, whatever it is. But, not unlike the way that those deaths are presented to us in the media, after a while they just talk about it and you start to get removed from the shock and from your connection to the fact that somebody’s died. So, over the course of the film we’re actually trying to, like back you slowly away from the shock and the trauma of somebody actually dying, only to bring you back into it again. Because that’s kind of the way society engages around it. You know, something shocking happens, Columbine, outrage, outrage, outrage, calm, calm, calm, shootings, shootings, shootings, death, death, death, Sandy Hook, oh fuck, this is the same problem we had before. [Brian and Stanley agree] This is precisely the same problem we had before. This outrage started with a school shooting and I guess we got to kill kids now in order to get your attention. It’s gonna be babies next. It has to be babies next. A person has to go into a nursery with a gun and kill babies and then news, news, news, news and then it’ll be pregnant mothers. 

Q (Brian): Yes, it’s always the next step they have to take. I’m curious. The cast is great. I mean every one of them was great in their role. How did you cast them? Where’d you find them?

A (Ali): A knife fight. [They all laugh] Brought all the actors into the room, threw knives on the floor.

Brian:That could be a fun way to cast movies. [They laugh again]

A (Ali):Listen, guys, we got three leads in this film and a couple of supporting characters. 

A (Stanley): No, honestly, it was Barbara Fiorentino [a co-producer], who’s currently the head of casting at Hulu, who was a judge on the competition, who’s incredible, and I mean you can dwell into the further process of it but it was this amazing thing where the material just like attracted the best young actors I could ever imagine. It was such a difficult thing trying to parse through everybody because a great actor like WHAT in the room, you know, and the way they were engaging with the material was so surprising and so rich and so different than anything I could even imagine while I was writing it. So, yeah man, for Steven [Silver] and Nicola [Peltz] and Spencer [Neville] to have risen to the top and also to be my friends actually, we hang out, I’m as excited about them as you are about them, you know what I’m saying?

Brian:Yeah, they’re great.

A (Stanley): They’re amazing.

A (Ali): You know, actually the process of selecting the actors was, I don’t want to call it competitive, but what we were attempting to do as we kind of got down to a core group of strong contenders. And so that process, you know, we had a couple of guys looking at it for Tunde, we had a couple of guys we were looking at for Soren and literally we spent this extended period of time in auditions with different pairings, this Tunde and that Soren, that Tunde and this Soren, you know, different ways of approaching the material in a scene and working through different scenes. You know, seeing what combination felt like the most organic, which one seemed the most compelling. You know, I said this before, Spencer Neville actually wasn’t my first choice for Soren until I saw him work with Steven. And the chemistry they had was different. It’s like oh these two guys, oh man this thing is special. Right? They were able to engage in such a way that they raised each other’s levels in just in terms of what they were doing. Joey Pollari, who plays Charlie, actually originally auditioned for Soren. Ultimately, he wasn’t right for Soren, but he was such a strong presence on the screen that, literally we just called him up and said hey you wanna do Charlie cause like I want you in this movie. Nic [Nicola], her first reading was, I mean we saw a tape and she was so incredibly compelling. There were a lot of young actresses that came into the room, Nic was in New York or wherever she was, she was on video, took a look and it was like wow okay let’s get her in here. And she just proved to be, like she’s a beautiful young woman but at the same time, that sort of vulnerability that we needed underneath to play against what she looks like. Like she really presented that in spades, it was pretty possessing. You know I could go on through all the rest of the actors but just David James Elliott, knocked it out the park. [Brian and Stanley agree] 

Q (Brian):Yeah, it was a great cast. Now, I have to say, the scene outside the convenience store, really got to me. I mean, I kind of felt what was on the screen. Can you tell me, Stanley, how much of the scene stayed for what was written on the page and then Ali, I’d like you to tell me what you were thinking about as you filmed it? 

A (Stanley): I think in terms of rendering doubts I was very aware of the matter of violence that exists. Every death references have changed my life in some way, shape or form. And when it came down to how we rendered the scene outside the convenience store, the choking, we were like okay, the structure of our film goes you find yourself more distant to death, that is a real thing that happened with a new cycle but then our own experience of bad death. Because you see it so often that you’re like oh you’re removed so at that point it was very important to us to get real close. Like you cannot ignore the idea that this is a human being that is dying and we’re gonna hold right there. And on the page, I had written that in and I’m so glad the way it turned out. We spent a lot of time on that scene and even shooting it, every black person on set wept on their own individual bases. I left to go to the bathroom at some point, I know you had your moment, Steven, if he was here, would tell you that afterwards he was like okay hey everybody goodbye, goodbye, goodbye and cried for fifteen minutes in his trailer. Because it’s a very visceral real thing that’s happening to black bodies. So, yeah, I hope that answers your question.

Brian:It does. And on what it became filming it?

A (Ali): Well, again, going into the sequence, again the idea was to bring you back into this moment and make it as immediate and as unforgettable like if it could scar you a little bit that’s good. And so the whole sequence starts out so relatively benign and this sort of tension builds which is when Tunde comes out to Soren’s dad and there’s this, what I think, amazing moment where Soren’s dad doesn’t believe that Tunde is telling the truth and then when he realizes that he is, what I think is one of the most important moments in this film is that he takes a minute to process it. [Brian agrees] And figure out what that means for him and what does that say about his kid. And as an adult he has a choice, what do I do right now? And as he kind of processing that, this other thing occurs and now suddenly this guy, who we thought is kind of like this conservative blow hard, like he’s not that guy at all. Like oh shit, that’s an act. This is who he really is when confronted with what’s real in his world. When he’s not just spouting platitudes and whatever else it is, you know whatever his rhetoric is, when he’s confronted with a real thing, we see who he really is, he’s a guy who cares. And then we’re down to Tunde and the thing about that death versus the others is that it’s a strangulation. Gunfire is dispassionate, right? [Brian and Stanley agree] Strangulation is not. In order for you to die, I have to want you dead. I have to keep holding on until you’re not alive anymore. And then it’s done. So, the lack of humanity that is involved in that and what we did really in terms of the sound is to stay, this is literally about watching the life drain out of a person and being forced to sit there and stay in that moment. Until it’s over. And then whatever you think about it, you think about it but you don’t walk away going what was that last one.

Q (Brian): No, yeah, it stuck with me, it’s still stuck, it’s been stuck with me actually two days from seeing the film, so it was a very, very powerful scene. So, Stanley, what was the toughest scene for you to write on the page? Ali, on top of that, what was the toughest scene for you to shoot?

A (Stanley): Toughest scene to write, that’s interesting. It was the therapy sequence. Because, and we were just talking about this yesterday, I did not want to have a single filler in that monologue. So, it took a very long time for me to be as sharp and as true, as cut through glass as possible. Because I knew that that moment, the therapy scene where he’s discussing how he feels about himself and about the world, needed to ring absolutely true. That’s very difficult because there’s a form of writing where words are happening and you can do platitude and you can do this and you can do that, there’s a dance to writing that functions but when you’re actually looking at truth and you’re looking at how can I communicate this in the fewest words as possible and the most impactful possible, that is extremely difficult. And because it was so fundamentally sad of himself, so fundamentally sad, and outside of how I actually feel, very simply I knew that was real for a lot of people. And I wanted to make sure I was doing justice to a lot of people and that’s why it was the hardest scene, the therapy sequence.

Q (Brian): And Ali, what was the toughest scene for you to shoot?

A (Ali): The sequence between Tunde and Soren when Tunde is trying to convince Soren to go into the house and come out to his dad. I was trying to find a way to make it come alive and make it dynamic without being melodramatic. It was really, really tough trying to figure out how to shoot this even though it was just two people but it’s a long dialogue scene and we needed to feel active but not overdo it. And so, between deciding, in the moment, on set we originally set it up with cameras on tripods and with angles then we realized that it wouldn’t work after shooting one take. So, we bailed on it and decided to shoot it handheld. We had a clock running against us on that particular day because of things that happened during production, so we had a limited number of takes which is incredibly emotional. Right? So, I can’t keep taking them through these big moments of emotion. Like, you couldn’t do that. Because the only way for them to get through the scene was to stay in it. I think I had three full takes because they would get done with every one and you could just see all this emotion come pouring out and I’d go okay let’s go again. So, you had to be really sensitive to what you’re asking your actors to do at this point. We shot it and go okay I hope that worked. And it wasn’t until we got into edit that I was able to really build and put it together because also just the terms of the dialogue. For Stanley, a lot of what he wrote on the page is really precise and really great material and in those moments it was great to be able to have this dialogue that Stanley loved what space we needed to give the actors so okay, we got a few takes and literally saying to them don’t worry about the lines. You know where you are in this story, you know what you want from your partner in this scene, you know where you need to get out, now you’re about to act. So, it was just really, really exciting and I came out of that the most unsure but came out with a couple of moments that I think were stellar. 

Q (Brian):I agree. I got one last question for you both. What do you hope people take away from the film after seeing it?

A (Stanley):I hope people feel safe. At the end of the day, the greatest victory that I could have is showcasing a culture of people that are often unsafe. So, I believe that film is the greatest vehicle for empathy that we have. When I was writing Tunde, I wanted to make sure I was putting the audience and the head of their minds and the spirits of each character that they had never seen before and what that does is allow you to feel something in a real way that allows you to then pull back and realize that people are living in a way that’s not like you. People are living under duress, people are living with the fear of the police, the fear of rejection and I truly think that if I can craft a thing that allows people to feel like they matter, like their lives matter, that could save kid’s lives. I think this is going to be a success. 

A (Ali): I really did approach this film from a true art perspective which is why I really wanted to come in and render it to the best of my abilities, Stanley’s words in a way that rang true to what he imagined when he was writing it and what propelled him to write it in the first place. Subsequently when people watch it, I feel like whatever rises up in them as result of watching it, is probably the thing they need to pay attention to. So, if you watch it and it makes you angry because of something, maybe you should ask yourself why is this movie making me mad? Or if you watch it and you feel sad and you ask yourself the same thing, why am I sad about seeing this, what is it about me that this is what comes out when I see this thing? Because whatever those kinds of very visceral, very reactive, very immediate things are, are things that you kind of need to pay attention to and make some kind of determination around. It’s not dogmatic for me, I’m not telling you anything but if something rises up inside of you because of it, it’s something that needs your attention. 

The Obituary of Tunde Johnson: Interview w/Director Ali LeRoi & Writer Stanley Kalu
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Comments (2)

  • Alexander Cisneros says:November 3, 2019 04:44 pm

    Great interview Brian! I can’t wait to see it.

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