Ric Roman Waugh: Gerard Butler and I have known each other for a number of years and been wanting to work together, and we talked about a number of things. And then I got a call out of the blue about doing the third installment of his Fallen franchise. What Gerard wanted to do was to take the action and the spectacle of the first two movies and send it to new directions and basically make more of an origin story. I love that idea.
So the idea was to not do an event-style plot of the White House being taken in Olympus Has Fallen, or the world leaders being assassinated in London Has Fallen. This movie is about Mike and it shows a day in the life of service. And also the complications that come with that and the heroism and the addictions to the job. You know it’s very much like what our military community or the first responders and law enforcement go through, or even if you think about it, professional athletes.
Mickey Nelson: Most of the Secret Service men and woman that retire go on to do something else–like now I try to do projects like this, so that is a challenge. Luckily you train all along the way, not just initially when you go into the Secret Service. So I think that really helps you adjust. You realize that you can’t stay on all of the time so you inject, as Ric always talks about, a lot of levity. You will see some levity, in the movie. I use that still to this day quite a bit as you probably have noticed. So that’s kind of what helps me deescalate.
Interview: Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails of The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Posted on June 22, 2019 at 9:13 pm
“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is stunning debut film from director/co-writer/co-producer Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, who co-wrote the story, based on incidents in his own life, and who plays a character named Jimmie Fails in the film.
The exquisite lyricism and meditative, poetic images give a grand, elegiac quality to the story about Jimmie’s dream of returning to the grand Victorian mansion that was once his family’s home in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco that is making it impossible for lower-income and middle class residents, especially non-whites, to continue to live there. Fails, with Jonathan Majors has his character’s closest friend, Montgomery, give deeply moving performances of quiet power, and it is one of my favorite films of the year.
In interviews, Talbot and Fails, lifelong friends, talked about what their home city means to them and why it was as important to them to tell the story of a friendship as it was to present loss and longing for the home.
Something we don’t see very often in movies is such a beautiful portrayal of a friendship so tell me a little bit about why that was something that you really wanted to have front and center in this story?
JF: I think it was important to see two males being gentle with each other and especially for black men because we always feel like you have to be this masculine tough guy or something or you can’t show your feelings to your friend so I think more particularly with black men that was important to show a friendship like that.
What inspired the beautiful, lush images of the film?
JT: I grew up watching a lot of old Hollywood films, pre-code and noir, with a particular interest in films in San Francisco from the 40’s and then obviously into the 70’s with movies like The Conversation. Actually sort of in getting ready for this film I dug for some lesser-known San Francisco movies that I hadn’t seen like Petulia, one that I love.
There is something about San Francisco that I think lives nationally in the imagination of filmgoers because it is a place that has been filmed for a very long time. But Jimmie and I felt like our side of San Francisco didn’t get that same cinematic treatment in film. We spent what feels like a lifetime walking around the streets of San Francisco. It’s strange because a lot of that’s disappearing. Our favorite places that Jimmie and I would go on these walks through the mission and Bernal and along those routes. Some of our favorite spots have been bulldozed and there have been new condos erected in their place and so as much as we wanted to make it a sort of valentine to San Francisco, the beauty of the city both in the architecture and the people, it was also just trying to document what we loved about it before it was all gone.
That obviously had a big impact on our approach to the way we wanted to show it as being sort of a magical place, and that also came from Jimmie and his character. He loved San Francisco very much and I think in his mind particularly when you meet him in the film it’s going to hold a certain romance for him as much as it can feel like it doesn’t love him back.
It was important to show the city as being lush and having these saturated rich colors partly just because that’s to me what the city feels like, what it looks like. The Victorians lend themselves to that and there’s also a regal quality.
When Jimmie and I first started talking about it we would say sometimes it felt like it’s the story of a deposed prince trying to get back the family throne and he’s on this odyssey-like journey. Every so often, he and Mont, as we see them do in the beginning, they take this journey from the outskirts of San Francisco, literally the furthest corner of the furthest point back into the heart of the city, to the old castle that he once lived in. That’s part of why we shot the scene when Jimmie’s yelling at the Segway tour led by Jello Biafra because that was supposed to show how he’s restored to the throne. Jonathan in his brilliance, when he comes out on the balcony and he says to him you look like King Jimmie each time he waved; that was all improvised by Jonathan but he really understood that scene on a deep level and it comes out in improv moments like that.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Mont essentially directs the guys who hang out on the corner all the time and essentially act as a counterpoint or Greek chorus in the film. He talks to them as though he’s a director giving actors notes on a scene.
JT: It’s funny you mentioned that because that’s another scene that was entirely improvised. Jonathan is wonderful to work with. He really studied the script and he’d quote it back to me, when I would try to change a line. He’d say, “No, we can’t change that line and this is why we can’t change it.” He really absorbs every word. Everything has so much conviction; every line he reads, and he gets very particular about them. But that was a scene where we felt like it just wasn’t working.
Originally he was supposed to cross the street and perform a magic trick as a distraction and on some level he did essentially the same thing. He took on the energy that was coming to Kofi but he always felt like Montgomery is observing the world as theater; everything is theatrical to him and of course an hour and a half of observations throughout the film all of that comes out then finally and expressed by him in his play.
I think in that moment it was a beautiful idea that Jonathan had that what if he cross the street and he treated them like performers because in a way we all in our own ways are performing something and in that moment it’s a toughness. I think those guys have more layers than what we see in that moment even though the guys were sort of leading the bullying of Kofi all have complicated feelings about that inside. Some of that confusion by them was somewhat genuine because there was no script to look to about what he might be doing.
Jimmie, your character wears pretty much the same clothes throughout the film. What does that hat and shirt tell us about the character?
JF: Joe made it. It grew on me. I didn’t necessarily like it but it was supposed to be reminiscent of a different era a little bit like kind of the old school sort of thing. I was very inspired by Brando in On the Waterfront with the beanie hat, the kind of longshoreman sort of look and there were a lot of longshoreman in San Francisco, black longshoreman, so it was kind of supposed to be like that sort of thing.
The magnificent Victorian house is so important to the film, really a character in the film. What was it like to be inside it?
JF: From the moment you step into that house it’s like everything outside doesn’t even exist. We were trying to find Victorian because we couldn’t use mine (the actual house the story was based on). It took us a while to find the house because all the places we went would be like Victorians on the outside and we go inside it would just look all new and it didn’t have the old sort of Victorian style inside. S o when we found that one and the owner was so nice to let us in.
Did you have a favorite room in the house or a favorite detail?
JF: The library for sure. The books he has in there — it’s insane. He has National Geographics that go back to like 1800 and something, like he literally has it’s insane what he has in there; I think it was like some of the original copies.
It must have been a challenge to take a story that is in part based on the real life of the person who is writing and performing it and then say, “Well, that may have happened but we can’t do it that way in the movie.” How did you navigate that?
JT: It’s interesting because I feel like everything I’ve ever made even going back to our first movies as teenagers came from something that happened in our lives. One of the first movies that Jimmie and I made with my younger brother Nat was about two friends who wind up in the suburbs for the weekend and they are lured out to the suburbs by two girls that they meet and I’m in it and Jimmie’s in it and it starts to go very wrong very fast.
It’s about two city kids who were very weirded out by the suburbs and we end up fleeing back to San Francisco in the end but that was basically something that had happened to me. So in a way it’s all natural that we would be talking about Jimmie’s life as we often did or with my life and then that would somehow end up being turned into a movie.
I think for this in particular some of the stories are pulled directly from Jimmie’s life; the scene with his mother is something that actually happened when he saw her on the bus after having not seen her for a long time and the character Mike Epps plays, Bobby, was a guy who drove off with the car that Jimmie and his dad was living in, they didn’t really acknowledge it.
Through a collective imagination, part of the film was not just retelling things that had actually happened but imagining different ways to tell them or to elaborate on them so thinking, “What if this guy drove off with Jimmie’s car never really acknowledged it even years later and still sort of said that he was just borrowing it and even if he picked Jimmy up and drove around town?” It was funny to think, “Who could do that so well?” Mike Epps is one of the funniest people in the world.
Even for the scene with Jimmie and his mom, it was like wanting to shoot that in a way that both felt honest and real. That was his real mother playing his mother in the movie. Part of what’s important about that is they look so much alike, he’s really his mother’s son in some ways, but also wanting to show in the way we shot them like that, shot reverse shot, a very stylized look, that there’s a distance between them as the world is sort of whirring past them both.
So I think that was actually from me and Jimmie as kids that first bonded on telling stories to each other, that was one of the most fun parts of this, how to take these real events and spin them into something that was partially fiction and partially true.
Jimmie always says for him every scene was emotionally true, even if the events and the characters were changed.
What has been the most gratifying of the reactions that you got from the film?
JF: Just people saying, “Thank you for being vulnerable.” It’s the best thing I could hear. People say a lot of beautiful things about the cinematography, about the actual art of it but when people thank me for that it means everything. It was hard for me to put myself out there, so that means everything to me.
It was a great privilege to be asked to write the June spotlight for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists on Rita Coburn. An excerpt:
Writer/producer/director/novelist Rita Coburn’s acclaimed documentary Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, co-directed with Bob Hercules, was released in 2016, but the film is ever timely in its importance and impact. In an ongoing outreach program, Coburn still travels with the film to schools and community centers, bringing to a wide range of audiences — especially impressionable youngsters — an understanding of the brilliant and inspiring Dr. Angelou, of her empowering story, of the importance of storytelling and of documentary film as the record of essential human history — especially the herstory that hasn’t been taught in schools….“All we have, in the long run, is our stories. It is of vital importance that stories be recorded before the people who lived them are no longer with us. Everyone should be documenting their elders on film or audio. Their stories tell us where we came from and who we are. For black women, people of color and all those who are marginalized, we have not been the writer’s of history. Documentaries and narrative work in our industry is a window to greater understanding of our culture. And, we should be front and center, through and through in telling those stories,” says Coburn.
“Until we have many points of view out in the media and the communications world we have a skewed picture of who we are as a people…. African American people didn’t write the history books. Even in other societies, women didn’t write the books so the stories aren’t there.”
Let’s talk more about the tone because both of your shows deal in death, but in a half-hour format where people are expecting to be able to laugh and breathe a bit more.
Feldman: The show, in its conversation about death, came from a very real and personal place for me. Maybe because I’m a comedy person, I can’t help but look at things that are incredibly dark and find the quirky, weird, funny details about them — or experiences you have through them. For me, the only parameter there was was that it had to be respectfully authentic. For example, there’s a grief counselor in the show and his matter-of-fact tone is based on a grief counselor that I had a conversation with when doing research for the show, who told me about this incredibly horrific thing that had happened in his family, but he said it like he was just taking his son to a baseball game. It was so dark that I was trying not to laugh, but I think that’s often how we deal with things that are uncomfortable: in that slightly sophomoric way of laughter. If it felt authentic and grounded in the experience the character was having, we could make a joke about it, but it could never be making fun of the person going through the thing — because this show is just as much for people going through things as it is a general audience.
Headland: Our death in the show is kind of a spiritual death. We talked about it as a character, basically. I guess what I thought was, in order for this premise to work, with that first car hit you have to really believe she’s dead. You don’t have to be scared out of your mind, but you have to know she didn’t imagine something. So we have to treat death extremely seriously there; it’s a little bit of the jump scare after she’s hit and going in close on her face and all of that stuff. And in Episode 2 is an opportunity to make death funny again. Now we need to kind of de-fang death for the series so every time she died it was less of a, “Oh no, she’s dying,” and more, “It’s part of my vocabulary now.” The real hard thing was to make death scary again, so by the time you came to the end of the story, you’d feel the stakes and that her dying would mean something — and that’s a big testament to the writers of Episodes 4, 5, 6 and 7 that they could move from something silly to her having internal deaths that can’t be explained.
We’ve been on this for so long, it’s pretty hard to attribute any specific ideas to any one person at this point. We had such an embarrassment of riches in that whole sequence. How do you make it not just a blur of people all the time? So, we found ways to sort of separate off certain units so you could focus. And Marvel fans, increasingly, with every movie, gotten these great female characters. Some people can call it pandering but it’s also like we have tons of shots of all men. Why not have a shot of all women and they’re so cool? It just seemed like “Let’s celebrate it!”
hese “Girl power!” moments are initially delightful but don’t hold up very well to scrutiny, not when we consider what else we know about these franchises. The Marvel Cinematic Universe took its sweet time giving us a female-focused story. The X-Men franchise has always been about McAvoy’s Charles and Michael Fassbender’s Erik/Magneto, and that’s fine because the actors are great as foils, but its female characters have always been shortchanged — so much so that even the Dark Phoenix storyline, one of the best from the comic books and the ’90s Saturday morning cartoon, lacks the necessary impact.
At the New York Times, Amanda Hess wites about women bosses on screen. It is telling that the current release “Late Night,” written by and co-starring Mindy Kaling, with Emma Thompson as a longtime talk show host with declining ratings who is often tyrannical in her dealings with the staff. It is, in its way, aspirational, as there are no women late night talk show hosts.
The culture is creeping with tales of seasoned female bosses torturing their young assistants and cynical mentors undermining their idealistic mentees. The women who opened doors are shown slamming them closed.
These are anxious projections. There are arguably more powerful women on screen than there are in real life. A woman has not commanded the desk of a major-network late night show since Joan Rivers got booted from Fox in 1987. Three women have become the president of the fake United States on “Veep” alone. The powerful women of fiction are born of both hope and fear, of how women will ultimately seize power and how they’ll wield it.
Mean girl female bosses have been frequent nemeses on screen, from the evil queen in “Snow White,” evil stepmother in “Cinderella” (who treats her stepdaughter more as a servant than a family member), evil fairy in “Sleeping Beauty,” evil octopus-creature in “The Little Mermaid,” and the woman selected by at least one source as the worst villain in the history of movies, Cruella de Vil in “101 Dalmatians,” who wants a coat made out of puppy fur. Then there’s Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in “The Devil Wears Prada,” Regina Hall in “Little,” Melissa McCarthy in “The Boss,” and Olivia Pope in “Scandal,” Wilhelmina in “Ugly Betty” and the ruthless and unapologetically self-centered Selina Meyer in “Veep.” The others may be mean on behalf of high standards and professional achievements. Selina has no actual policy goals other than benefiting her own career to the detriment of those she feels threatened by or judged by.
Hess is perceptive about the dynamic between the older generation women who perhaps had to be ruthless to move forward and the younger women in the story who tend to be more of an afterthought, just a sketched-in figure to give the anti-heroine someone to play off of.
It is probably not a coincidence that the role of the powerful woman tends to be deliciously complex while that of the up-and-comer is comparatively thin. The bad boss, whether in business or politics, is jumping with social tensions. Executives and senators are curious avatars for feminism, after all: Feminism is a movement bent toward equality, while power necessarily accrues to a select few. Often, powerful women are upheld as agents of feminist change when all they have changed are their own circumstances. Efforts to insist that such power “trickles down” are not incredibly convincing; millions of women are left competing for droplets.
No one is expecting these films to achieve parity or solve problems. But it is unquestionably a step forward that they have brought us further in this discussion, with so many new examples to ponder.
I well remember crying in the first surprisingly heartbreaking — and wordless — moments of Pixar’s “Up.” Here director Pete Docter, now co-head of Pixar, talks about creating that scene and how it evolved from the original idea. Rotten Tomatoes is celebrating its 21st anniversary by paying tribute to 21 unforgettable moments in the last 21 years. This is certainly one of them and I can’t wait to see what’s next.