Film

Interview: Blindspotting Creative Duo On Oakland, Finding a Director and the Ten Years to the Big Screen

Musicians, poets, actors, and general creative types Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal have been working on-and-off on the screenplay for Blindspotting for somewhere around 10 years—long before Diggs got involved with one Lin-Manuel Miranda and his most recent Broadway show Hamilton, for which Diggs won a Tony for playing the dual roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. The Oakland natives were determined to set their story in their hometown, but since they began the process of writing, the Bay Area has become one of several American hubs of black culture that has seen its share of gentrification, police violence and a diminishing sense of cultural significance in the eyes of the local government.

blindspotting

Image courtesy of Lionsgate

The story they came up with is about lifelong friends Colin (Diggs) and Miles (Casal), and Blindspotting (directed by Carlos López Estrada) perfectly walks the line between exceedingly funny and dangerously poignant and topical. The story takes place over the last three days of Colin’s probation, as he tries to simply stay out of trouble, which is not easy with a friend like Miles who, among other things, decides to buy a gun one night. But this is also a deeply personal story about a man trying to better his life and deciding who among his group of acquaintances will stay in his life and which he can’t afford to be around.

After Hamilton, Diggs began making regular appearances in ABC’s “Blackish,” Netflix’s “The Get Down” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and films like last year’s Wonder. Cassal is a newcomer as both a screenwriter and actor, and being a part of Blindspotting seems to have gotten him excited about continuing down this creative path. The two friends are great together in the film and in person, and I had a chance to sit down with them recently to discuss the film, which debuted at Sundance, where I first saw it (I’ve seen it three time to date, and it gets better with each viewing). The film opens this Friday around Chicago. Enjoy our conversation…

Normally, I might begin an interview about a movie by asking where you got the idea for the film, but I feel like you guys just took a look around and said “What’s going on around here?”

[Both laugh]

Rafael Casal: Print that!

What was going on in the world and in your lives that informed this work?

Daveed Diggs: That was it, man. That was the prompt from [producer] Jess Calder—she found Rafael’s work on YouTube as a poet—so her real prompt was “Do you think this kind of language would work in a film?” And that’s when we all started working together.

RC: One of the poems was about death in Oakland. Something about that stuck out to her.

DD: When we all started working together, we knew we wanted to tell an Oakland story, or at least a Bay Area story, because that’s where we grew up and we hadn’t seen it done right, at least according to us. And then very shortly after that, Oscar Grant was murdered at the Fruitvale Bart station, so all of those things coincided. So you’re totally right, it was like looking out the window and watching TV…

RC: “This is what we’re doing.” It was verse, Oakland, and this tension between police and the community and why.

Had you ever considered before this writing a more traditional screenplay?

RC: I don’t think I’d ever thought about a screenplay.

DD: We were sort of dipping our toe into theater writing and we made a ton of music, so we were experimenting with long-form theater. Even after that, we started doing web shorts.

RC: It wasn’t until we got to L.A. that we started doing web series stuff. It certainly was a catalyst for our imaginations, especially in the last three or four years of working on the film, and we have a stack of all of these other things we wanted to do. And a lot of that happened because we didn’t think this was ever going to get made. There were definitely more conventional things we could do that would allow us to do things that are fully who we are.

But when this came back around, there came this opportunity to make the film we always wanted to make first, which never happens. And then we started trying to figure out if we could do this film in the insane timeframe we had. It was probably us going “But what if we got to do this? What if that’s the first move we do? How crazy would that be?” And that thought really carried us through what felt like an absurd two months of “Is is possible?” We found out at the end of February [2017] that we might be able to do it, and by June 1, we were shooting.

I remember at Sundance, your director Carlos said on stage “A year ago, I’d never heard of this movie.”

DD: He got swooped up along the way.

How did you get him involved? Why was he the right guy? He has this background in music video, and there are certainly portions of this film that have that feel to it, but not a lot of it.

DD: We met doing clipping. [Diggs’ band] music videos…

RC: Which are very narrative. I feel sometimes like there’s a slight disservice to saying Carlos is a music video director because of where that places him in people’s minds—it’s not just performing and dancing in front of the camera; it’s very linear and high concept and artful music videos—the super art-house version of music videos.

DD: And then we all worked together on the #BARS Workshop, which is like an incubator space for verse and theater that we head up, and Carlos was doing some projects for that. But the two things we know for a fact about Carlos is that he always does more than the budget allows; he can always do more with the available resources. And that he is capable of doing the one thing we hadn’t seen before, which was making this kind of verse stuff feel very natural and of the world. We’d done that for years already. We couldn’t say that of any other director who was pitched to us.

We also had this shorthand from having worked together for years. There were other versions of this with other directors who had more films under their belt and had credits and more of a name, but we didn’t know that they could do it. We knew Carlos could do it.

RC: We also didn’t know if they would take it away from us. It’s a film, not television; the writers don’t have the same agency on set. And because of the specificity of the place is paramount—respecting the region, the art forms, the delicacy of the conversation. There are so many earnest attempts at having conversations about race on every TV network and a ton of movies, and when someone gets it wrong, it’s not for lack of a bunch of people trying to figure it out. But somewhere in there was a compromise on a compromise that didn’t work out. We know this material and needed to work with someone who not only knows we know the material but wants us engaging in the conversation about it. And Carlos gave us so much creative input int the process.

There is a rhythm to the way the film movies, not like a musical, but not completely unlike one either. How does that look on the page? Or is that part of the discussion with Carlos more than writing it down?

RC: A lot of that is in the cut, in the post-production rhythmic choice. There is a rhythm to a cut that is aligned and responsive to the score, in a way that some directors won’t make that choice. Music is sitting at the front for us.

Is that Oakland to you?

RC: Oh yeah, dude. Everything is rhythmic, the cadence, slang, pimp talk, that’s all part of it.

DD: And there are almost 40 needle drops in the film, and all but two are Bay Area artists, and we wanted to have the full gamut of music represented, so we have Tower of Power play up close to the front, with that deep funky stuff. We have some brand new things, and that shows a history and trajectory of rhythm that comes from the place, that exists in popular culture for consumption, but it’s also the heartbeat of the city. It all does play into each other.

On the page, we had a lot of leeway as we were writing it. We’ve written music together for a long time, so it didn’t matter how it looked or how the lines were broken up, because we were writing for us. That is a good question, because if we were to do something like this again, I don’t know how we would do that so that someone else could figure it out without you there.

RC: We would just say to Carlos, we’re going to transition from here to here as a music break. We know from the script that there was a music break from the liquor store to the Commander Moving offices the second time they go that was going to be a back and forth between Miles’ habits and Janina’s [Gavankar, who plays Miles’ ex- Val] habits, cut to music. That’s another thing that forwards this idea of everything happening in time, but that’s what Carlos does.

DD: But he also had the foresight to say “We need to get these shots whenever we can,” and there was a very limited schedule to make sure we have enough for when we chose that song.

RC: We can slice! I remember walking into another scene, and Robby [Baumgartner, cinematographer] and Carlos coming up with a camera, and I had my shirt off, and they just shot my wrist and hand. “Light it here and here. Flip the cigarette” And they’re trying to keep my chest out of the shot because I’m not wearing a shirt. I loved it every time.

I want to ask about the use of humor. Both times I’ve seen this, I remember laughing my ass off. It’s a funny movie, except when it’s not.

RC: “Life: funny, except when it’s not” Print that too!

Where does that tonal control come from? You get really dark at times, and too many tonal shifts can give you whiplash in the wrong hands.

DD: The only way you’re able to execute something like this is if everybody is on board, which is why I work with Carlos and Rafe. Everyone who worked on this film worked for way too little money and insane hours, like you do on an indie, but they were in love with the script. So no one had a problem getting on the same page. The humor had to baked in from jump. It’s definitely in the script, and then in discussions, we said, “Here are the things we’re trying to accomplish. You guys need to have this in your brains at all times.” To the actors too, and the casting process—we were at every casting session.

RC: After we’d done some re-dos to the script, we knew how heavy it was going to get, so the general instruction was “Go for the joke the way you would in life.” And we know that during the most tense moments in life, that’s when the joke is useful. I do it all the time, even in my music. We’re talking about something down, and I’m looking, hunting for the laugh. “Somebody passed away or we’ve lost this big thing that we really cared about.” We would joke when this film would not get made.

There is this feeling that if we’re not laughing, we might be crying.

DD: That’s the history of disenfranchised people. That’s why the blues exists. There’s a long history of what you do to keep from crying, because you can’t wake up and cry all the time. You still have to go to work at Commander Moving and watch the city you love and help the city you love become a different city every day. The only way you can do that is to laugh.

There was a documentary a couple years ago called The Force, which also dealt with police violence against the Oakland community, and you mentioned the incident that inspired Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. How did you want to tackle the subject without compromising.

RC: By just not making anyone two dimensional. It’s not the cop’s story, so we’re not giving him a bunch of screen time, but we had the good fortune of getting Ethan Embry to play Officer Molina, and he’s an amazing actor and he took it to task. He did the work, more than we ever could have asked him to do for a role that has three lines. And he made all of these fantastic choices, so that when we get to the more climactic moments in the film, you don’t sit there and see a villain or a monster that we’ve teased. He turns it on its head. It isn’t Jaws in the water; it’s a person who has killed someone.

What we don’t often see in the news is how that person is doing alone, after this has happened. We were really fascinated with staying on Collin and the idea and his terror and descent in the moments where the police are there. They are both the experience of people of color in those neighborhoods when they appear and the potential reality if you are to see them again.

I want to talk about that climactic moment moment for a minute, without giving too much away. There’s so much to pull apart there. I want to know about the construction of that moment, from when you first wrote it to when you shot it. What were the variations over the 10 years? The film hinges on how that plays out.

DD: My answer is going to be so disappointing, because almost all of that text, for 10 years, we’d been calling a placeholder. Rafael wrote most of that 10 years ago, and for the entire time, we were like, “We’re going to change that and get it right,” and we never did it. We were doing a pre-record the week before we started shooting…

RC: I think I added some fancy stuff at the end, and was like “Here, Diggs. Let’s add this.” That whole rap section had been sitting there for so long, and in the re-write I went back and gave it some flare, but we had this sneaking suspicion that it was fine. So I handed it to Diggs, and he took it…

DD: I sat on it for a while and kept reading over it, knowing I was supposed to put it in my own voice. But then I realized, “You write just like me. This is actually great.” I didn’t think there’s enough showing off in the front half, so I added some interesting, twisty language and fast, showing-off stuff in the first third—maybe four or eight bars. And that was it. So we rocked with this thing that had been sitting there as place holder for years, but it turns out we had unknowingly reverse engineered the whole film from that.

I can’t think of a single thing I wrote 10 years ago that I’d look at today and say “No changes needed.”

DD: Me either. But it was good. And then shooting it was like shooting anything else in this film. It’s about timing—we had about four hours to get the shot. We shot it in three parts: before you break the glass, breaking the glass, and after you break the glass—you only have so much glass. We did maybe three takes of each, and that was it. Our good fortune by sitting with this for so long is that we weren’t super worried about the performance, even of the more difficult stuff in the film, particularly the raps—that’s what we do. So we’re like, “That’s great. Let’s get the shot and trust that that’s going to work out in the edit.”

Was there a time in this gestation period where you thought “Maybe this isn’t the next thing for us”?

RC: Every year. Every time it didn’t get made.

What kept you going?

RC: Well, it’s not like we sat there with it thinking “This has got to get made.” We let it go and come back together for something else.

DD: Jess and Keith [Calder, producer] would come back and keep bringing it up and ask “Do you still want to do this?” And we were like “Yes, of course we want to. What are you talking about? We didn’t stop it.”

RC: That’s how it came up the last time, I sent a drunk text after the [2017] Oscars: “We have a great movie like Moonlight.” And then I forgot about it, and then two days later they wrote back “You would still make that movie?” “Yes! We never put this down; we’re just 10 years older now.”

Great to see you both. Best of luck.

RC: Thanks, man.

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