Jim McKay on His Return to Feature Filmmaking, the Soccer-Themed Drama, En el Séptimo Día
Jim McKay, whose early, mid ’90s/early-aughts features (Girls Town, Our Song, Everyday People and Angel) were empathetic and involving New York dramas suffused with a love of neighborhood and feeling for community, makes a welcome return to feature filmmaking with the Brooklyn-set En el Séptimo Día (“On the Seventh Day”), which premiered last week to strong notices at BAMcinemafest. With a fresh cast of mostly Spanish-speaking newcomers, McKay tells the story of Jose (a soulful Fernando Cardona), an undocumented Mexican immigrant who, weekdays plus Saturdays, does deliveries at an upscale Carroll Gardens restaurant while, on Sundays, playing as the star player on his local Sunset Park soccer team. Living in a small apartment cramped by coworkers and teammates, he’s saving money to bring his pregnant wife over from Mexico. The film’s minimalist plot is set in motion when Jose’s yuppie boss (Christopher Gabriel Núñez) informs him that he’ll be needed this coming Sunday — an “all hands on deck day” when the restaurant will host a private party. Of course, that’s the day of the league’s finals, and his team will surely lose without him.
In the days leading up to the game, Jose stealthily goes about his deliveries while quietly pondering his decision, which, McKay deftly underscores, is a deceptively difficult one. One might think that, for Jose, economics would trump sports, but, especially in the early days of this current administration, the preservation of his inner life — the camaraderie, sense of identity and development of an emotional support mechanism — is a more than compelling countervalue. En el Séptimo Día builds to a beauty of a third act, delivering the payoffs expected in any good sports movie while inflecting those payoffs with an appropriately melancholy understanding of today’s political and social realities.
For McKay, En el Séptimo Día (which is largely in Spanish but is subtitled for both English and Spanish-speaking audiences) follows more than a decade directing TV shows like The Wife, Law and Order and The Good Wife. Below, he talks about how he got in — and, temporarily, got out of — television, how he cast his non-actors, and what it means for him to tell stories about other characters hailing from cultures and ethnicities.
Filmmaker: You made the transition from independent film director to TV director long before it was a career aspiration for so many of your colleagues. How did you break into TV?
McKay: During the course of making Everyday People and Angel, that was also the time when select shows — Homicide, Oz, and then, of course, the HBO films — started hiring independent directors. Jean de Segonzac, who I knew as an amazing DP from Laws of Gravity, all of a sudden he’s directing TV. After New Jersey Drive Nick Gomez was directing Oz. I saw that happening and was interested in getting in there too. The first show I got called to do was The Wire. I had worked with Alexa Fogel, the casting director, and I had done Everyday People with [executive] Kary Antholis at HBO. They both [told the producers], “Talk to Jim,” and I got a call out of the blue. I couldn’t have picked a better first experience because it was so director-friendly and because it was in my wheelhouse of style. It turned out that Russell Fine was shooting the show, and he had shot Girls Town.
Filmmaker: Was it an easy transition for you?
McKay: There was a little bit of confusion at first — what exactly does a director do on a TV show? I kind of had to learn that, and when I did I really appreciated the process. When you direct TV, you are trying to bring someone else’s vision to fruition while at the same time putting your specialties into the process. I found that was extremely different, and in a weird way, that made it easier to do. I didn’t feel like I was frustrated creatively because I had already wrapped my brain around the fact that it was going to be a different creative experience. But a lot of indie film people have a hard time with that transition because if you don’t delineate the difference between the two — if you think you’ll have the same kind of experience [directing television] that you’ve had with your films — you end up in trouble. The relationship to the crew and producers is different.
After The Wire I got in the loop for shows like Law & Order — New York-centric stuff. And during those early years I learned a lot. I never had a crane on one my films, or worked with stunts, or worked at that pace. Coming out of my four movies, I didn’t even know all the rules — I had a lot to learn about things like crossing the line. In the early years every show taught me something different and new. And the work kept coming. In my first year I did one show, then three or four, and then eventually seven shows a year, and I’m still really enjoying it.
Filmmaker: So where was feature filmmaking during all of this television work?
McKay: I said to myself, from the beginning, “I’m going to [direct TV], save money, and at a certain point go back and do a small film.” And that time stretched out to be a bit longer than I expected. I’m not that great at multitasking. There are people who can sit on set at a monitor and between takes rewrite a completely different script. I’m not that kind of person. I have three weeks off and I will spend those three weeks recuperating and getting my bearings again.
So, it took a while, and towards the latter end of the 10 or 12 years, I had another script that I spent a year or two trying to cast. It was the first thing I had written that made sense to have a known actor in the lead. That was an interesting new step to take. I never had to cast someone to get money in the film. [Name actors] were never important to me, but the lead character was a famous person in the story, so it made sense. I spent a bunch of time looking for someone to bring in financing, and it just didn’t happen. I had to be patient, and I was not used to that. It was always going to take a while, but I got frustrated and, at a certain point, I thought, I can’t wait any longer. So I pulled this thing out that I started 15 years earlier, did another draft and pulled the trigger. You don’t have the money, or the support structure, but at a certain point you just say, “This is happening.” It was [producer] Caroline [Kaplan] and me, and then I hired an assistant, Lindsey [Cordero], who three or four weeks later became a producer because she was kicking ass so much.
Filmmaker: Were you worried in any way about going into this small-budget film after a decade of working in larger-budgeted TV?
McKay: I had some trepidation going in. Was I going to remember how to do this? Was I going to be able shed skills from television that were not appropriate — to let go of some things?
Filmmaker: Like what?
McKay: Well, there are both good and bad things. In TV, you work fast, and on this movie, I had to work fast. But on TV, there’s tons of money being spent, so you have to produce. And you are moving fast with a well-trained and well-oiled crew. Here, I could no longer expect if I needed a prop at the 11th hour that I would have five people in a props department who could go out and buy it. Here I was working with a much smaller crew, an indie crew who had the passion, and [my] energy had to motivate them. And when it did, it was very special. The shoot was both incredibly enervating and difficult and also completely filled with epiphanies and joy.
Filmmaker: What was particularly tough?
McKay: Sometimes you set out to make low-budget film, and it’s people in an apartment, who live on the same block. Or, everyone comes to a house one Thanksgiving weekend. I quickly realized here that we needed a fancy restaurant for part of the story. We needed an apartment we could take over for many scenes, and we needed a soccer field. The logistics of the soccer field — permitting field time — were tough. We prepped in April, and two weeks earlier signups had begun for leagues throughout the city. The whole final act of film takes place in 90 minutes at the end of day, between 7:30 and 9 at night. Half the time we were trying not to shoot other people who had permits on the field. And then the 10 main guys in our cast were not professional actors. A lot of them work in construction, and some in restaurants, delis and food service. They worked six days a week, so we scheduled all of our apartment and soccer scenes on Sundays, and some on Saturdays. In the end one or two people lost their jobs because they asked for too many days off. Our lead left his job because there was no other way.
Filmmaker: Shooting on Sunday — that’s ironic. It echoes your protagonist’s central dilemma.
McKay: Here I am making him work on the seventh day, which our story is saying not to fuck with!
Filmmaker: Tell me about your casting process. How did you find your actors?
McKay: We were meeting people on the street, pulling them aside and saying, “You’d be interesting [in a film we’re making], would you meet?” They’d come in and we’d give them a little questionnaire. What they did, where they were from, what made them interested in this project, why they came in today. Almost to the person, in one form or another, [they all said], “You never know what can happen,” or, “You have to have dreams.” Or, “I’m interested in the idea of representing who I am in this project.” It was similar on certain levels to stuff on Our Song — using the process of casting as a certain kind of acting school. One of the joys of this movie is watching them learn to act on screen — to memorize lines, learn about blocking, continuity, and embodying character. There are raw moments, but also moments where they’re really good. Our editor and I joked at the beginning that if we had to take out every little three-frame moment when someone looks at the camera we’d crash and burn because we’d lose good reads in other ways. There was something interesting [about this rule], because at some point almost everyone glanced over at the camera. It just became a new thing.
Filmmaker: You’re releasing this film at a time in which the politics of immigration have changed significantly from the time you wrote the script. And there’s also the recent dialogue around cultural appropriation, and who gets to tell whose stories. What are your thoughts on those issues as compared with when you first envisioned the project?
McKay: I’ll start with the second one first. In my head I’m someone who is very sensitive and keyed into cultural appropriation when I see it in other artists. My antennae goes up as well, and I judge people according to certain standards. So I get it. The choices I make about the projects I do come from a bunch of different places, from my politics to how I want to spend my time as a person. When you make art, it changes your life. It changes who you are and what you do. When I make something I want to expand my own horizons and have an experience outside my own. The idea of who is telling a story is important, and the idea of what stories are being told is important too. As a producer, and in other things I do, I help filmmakers of color, queer filmmakers, filmmakers of all different stripes make their stories, and I’m proud of that work. This was an issue with Girls Town too. I was never a teenage girl. But I’ve developed certain very collaborative methods in my work, and I work hard to get things right. I don’t want to tell a story about a white guy in Brooklyn with two kids. I want to portray characters not seen in mainstream media and to see them in a different light.
[Regarding immigration], it’s amazing when you look back 15 years ago versus four years ago versus even six months ago. There’s one thing in the film that strains credibility now — that this guy is going to cross the border and cross back with this wife. That’s pretty frigging unbelievable now. We were filming during the election, and we couldn’t underestimate how different the world is now. I hope this film plays a part in changing it it in some ways. It’s not going to change policy, but it’s a piece of storytelling thrown into the mix that shows us a different way to look at things.