High in Bed-Stuy: Shaka King on Newlyweeds
The lovers at the center of Shaka King’s Newlyweeds are young Brooklynites whose romance more or less revolves around their love of marijuana. King’s often outrageously funny and wistfully bleak movie is a black stoner answer to James Ponsoldt’s Smashed; with genre-bending humor and style to burn, the movie asks delicate questions about the nature and sustainability of their relationship and fissures that may pull them apart. Amari Cheatom’s Lyle is a repo man for a rent-to-own electronics and appliance store while Trae Harris’ Nina is a museum tour guide. He’s a little angry and brighter than his job title would indicate while she seems to glide through life with as little anxiety as possible; in a weird way, marijuana makes them, and their deepest anxieties, invisible to each other.
When the two get caught up on the wrong side of the law due to pot-fueled mishaps, they face a crossroads long proscribed, and not just by her penchant for bringing by seemingly affable scholarly brothers who hit on her or her inability to keep her fresh-baked pot brownies out of the hands of nosy grade-schoolers on a museum tour. Are Nina and Lyle right for each other? Will the subtle class differences between them (she’s upper middle class, with a big supportive brownstone-living, Cosby-ready family; he’s not) prove insurmountable? The movie, to its great credit, doesn’t provide concrete answers to the questions its genre expectations would normally warrant. It doesn’t ask you to root for these two, content as it is to fully and honestly inhabit their world with candor and graceful curiosity and let you make up your own mind. In a year of magnificent black American directorial debuts, Newlyweeds may be the finest.
The picture, which was made as King’s MFA Thesis at NYU’s graduate film program, world premiered in the NEXT section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Phase 4 Films opens it in Los Angeles today; it has been playing at Manhattan’s Film Forum since Wednesday.
Filmmaker: Lyle says something early in the movie that might be an interesting entry way into the film’s themes. When he and his partner take the wrong person’s couch, he says that his partner lacks compassion because he won’t return it. A lot of the trouble he and Nina end up in during the movie is because of incidental moments of the people lacking compassion — the kids go into her bag and eat her pot brownies at the museum for example, or the coke dealer won’t give Lyle’s $20 back when he realizes Lyle wanted weed instead. Was this central to the thematic concerns you had when you decided to tell this story, cycles of compassionless behavior?
King: That’s just a humorous device I use. The kind of thing I find funny is you try to do the right thing, and it turns out much worse for you. So in the instances you referenced, it was me really just trying to use it as a humorous device, not me trying to explore something deeper. I really was just trying to stay ahead of the audience. I’m setting you up for what you thought was going to be a positive outcome and then give you a negative outcome.
Filmmaker: The movie straddles a few genres and does this in an African-American context; this is part of what makes it so unusual. It’s funny and earnest, its a romantic comedy, it’s a substance-abuse drama, but it’s almost defined as much by what it’s not. It’s not Half Baked, but it’s also not a a Lifetime “drugs are bad” movie of the week. Were you reacting to what is out there already and consciously trying to forge something that wasn’t in the vein of how most films depict marijuana users or members of the black working class?
King: It’s just an aesthetic choice. Doing comedic stuff comes naturally to me, but only if it’s natural, if it comes out of something real. That earnestness and that slapstick, gaggy side to it, those coexist in the movie because that’s what the laughs bring out of me, the reality and truth of the moments.
Filmmaker: Where did you start in the writing? Did it start with the couple? Or this particularly Bedford-Stuyvesant world they inhabit?
King: Well at first I had this idea about this couple, but these side characters, like the guy whose couch he takes, or Ms. Tunison for example — she’s based off of one of my best friend’s mother, because he told me a story back in the day about her. She’s more like a second mother to me, or well, more like an aunt to me; I only have one mother. Anyway, he told me this story about her where she kicked this woman in the face on the bus. It was an altercation where the kick in the face wasn’t the way it had to go and his mother isn’t a violent person. I know some hot headed West Indian women, you know, so I thought this would be a good obstacle for Lyle.
I knew the first victim was going to be this overweight Puerto Rican guy and I didn’t want it to be a situation where the audience thinks Lyle smokes weed because he spends his days ripping off the poor; I wanted it to be he smokes weed because his job sucks. So although he feels bad about going into this guy’s home and taking the beat-up couch that the guy can barely afford to begin with only to find he took the wrong guy’s couch, I really wanted to show how these people are not just going to let you take their stuff without a fight. They’ll fight you tooth and nail. How rough is that experience and how funny can that experience be because of how rough it is. So I just got really wrapped up in those characters and storylines that I found myself getting very detailed in sketching those out and kind of neglecting the relationship between Lyle and Nina. I just found the repo world fascinating, honestly. I was just going off into this repo world and at one point I even considered just making a movie about that, about this guy and his job, and completely scrapping the relationship.
However I realized there were things within that which interested me as well and that I was giving a whole portrayal of people I know in Brooklyn from every walk of life. I need Nina. She’s from this part of Brooklyn as well, she’s comes from an affluent African-American family and those worlds will interact and intertwine, especially in Bed-Stuy. That’s the beauty of that neighborhood and that’s the beauty of New York, or pockets of it at least, the way it used to be, less so now perhaps. It became this mess of ideas that I eventually had to tailor a story around.
Filmmaker: Nina and Lyle interact with the criminal justice in vastly different ways — for Nina, because she has an upper middle class family to rely on and who exert a certain amount of control when they feel they need to over her life, she’s thrust into this position of being taken from Lyle. Lyle doesn’t have that and is perhaps looked down upon by them. The movie is dealing with all of this, but never in a heavy-handed fashion.
King: Yes and you’re right, they never say anything. Anthony Chisholm, who plays Nina’s father, has this ad-libbed line toward the end, he says when Lyle comes to the house afterward to try to win Nina’s affections back even though they have a restraining order against him. Anthony says, “I love you, brother, but you got to use some common sense.” He says, “I love you, brother,” you know what I mean? It’s not this kind of thing where he’s like, “You need to stop hanging out with this street guy.” That’s sort of what you expect when you see a relationship like that portrayed in cinema, you expect this really affluent older black man and some younger black man and he’s Barack Obama-ing him like, “Pull your pants up.” I didn’t want it to be like that at all. I hate dialogue that sounds written. People are much more roundabout. I wanted it to feel natural. This isn’t a movie where we stated things outright. We never know how Lyle and Nina met. Between the end of the second act and the beginning of the third, you don’t know how much time has passed. When you’re operating like that, it doesn’t behoove you to make your characters preachy.
Filmmaker: We enter Lyle’s fantasies and his subjective space, but never Nina’s. Why?
King: The movie is in a lot of ways about Lyle’s dream world. One of the first lines in the movie is Lyle saying, “I don’t dream, that’s why I burn.” He associates every pleasant thing in his life with getting high, including dreaming, which everyone can do. I wanted to show his dream life even though he doesn’t believe in it throughout the movie. He has this very imaginative side that he doesn’t even acknowledge as existing because he’s so caught up in getting by day to day, that he completely neglects this ability he has to go deeper into his consciousness. At the end, the last one he has, it’s the first one he has that he’s kind of conscious of. I wanted to make a movie where the audience felt stoned watching it, even if they don’t smoke weed. I wanted to have sequences that weren’t so grounded in reality, even if that’s what we’re often doing on the comedic side, grounding it in reality, if just to give it another layer.
Filmmaker: It has a remarkably rich and full aesthetic for what I assume was a very low budget.
King: Well the amount of money we spent on this movie was more money than I had ever seen in my entire life, so I never looked at it like it was a low budget. I knew we didn’t have a lot of money, but I thought we had enough money to do everything we needed to. Like I made this music video once for $200 and I was like, “Let’s make this look shitty,” you know? On purpose, because it has to look shitty, it’s going to have to. But when you have enough money you’re like, “Let’s make this look as good as we can.” I think comedies generally aren’t shot in an interesting way. Microbudget films in general are shot to look cheap and dirty. That’s part of the aesthetic. Sometimes it’s a choice. We didn’t storyboard, but we shotlisted, even if we’d scrap it once we got to the location. But it’s a choice not to work on the visual side of your movie months in advance. Me and Daniel [Patterson], the d.p., sat down three months in advance and worked through how this movie was going to look. We did it, like 70 times. We did it by ourselves, came together and did it, scrapped it, did it again. Our whole thing was we didn’t have a lot of money, but we had time, so we knew we could design it and make it look good and make our dollars go much further than your average production.
Filmmaker: How did you settle on Amari?
King: I had seen him in Night Catches Us and I thought he was amazing. He was the best thing in the movie, in my opinion. I never forgot him. It was crazy, I remember seeing it in the movie theatre and thinking this character is so interesting, his performance was really interesting. Years later when it was time to make our movie, he kind of came up but the investors were like, “Let’s get someone who’s going to attract more money and attract a bigger distributor.” But then one of our producers had done a movie with him last summer and he thought he was certainly the best person to play Lyle. There’s no one else to play Lyle. So I Skyped with Amari and immediately I was like, “Yeah, he’s Lyle,” so we got to work.
Filmmaker: How did the movie you were making change in your mind during the course of production?
King: I wasn’t really conscious during the shooting process of aiming to do anything but getting as real a performance as possible as often as possible. I was like, “I’ll figure everything else after the fact.” Looking back, I couldn’t even answer the question truthfully.
Filmmaker: Were there things that you shot that worked out better than you thought they would once you got to the editing room and vice versa, things you were suddenly concerned about once you watched them?
King: Oh yeah. The edited version of the movie is totally different than the script. Lyle and Nina ended up together in the script. I always hated that. During the shoot I figured out a way not to make that happen, even though we shot the script as written.
Filmmaker: That’s interesting. I read the ending as being ambiguous about whether they’re in that car together or not.
King: I always thought that it was clear that that’s his dream. Last time you see her, she’s in the house. Then he’s in his car alone. Then he’s by himself and he looks out the window and we cut back and she’s in the car. But when could she have gotten in the car?
Filmmaker: It’s an ellipsis. It’s hard to tell. In a satisfying way. She could have gotten in the car, but one’s not sure. It’s almost Taxi Driver-esque, although the final sequence in that is more clearly a dream.
King: People always ask, is that a dream? I always say, probably. Because you don’t want to hand-hold them. It’s ambiguous in a sense. I didn’t want The Graduate ending. That’s the ending I’d written and had felt pressure to write.
Filmmaker: From yourself or from others?
King: From others, from people’s expectations of the movie. You name a movie Newlyweeds, you say it’s a stoner romantic comedy, that’s an easy way to sum it up. If you pitch it as that, there is an expectation that it has a happy ending because romantic comedies generally do. But then the movie ended up not being a romantic comedy, which is probably good because I don’t think I could if I wanted to, but I think it’s richer that way.