“The Interior Lives of People That Aren’t Typically Represented in Cinema”: Andrew Cohn on The Last Shift
Fascinated with the unseen men and women of forgotten America, Andrew Cohn, proud Midwestern and versatile filmmaker, has created a body of documentary work that witnesses modest, real lives without condescension or pity. Features like Medora or Night School engage with their subjects—a teenage basketball team in small-town Indiana or adult students juggling economic and personal struggles—in a compassionate and collaborative manner.
Translating that honesty to fiction now with The Last Shift, his first scripted film, Cohn continues to give voice to the working poor, in this case two fast food employees in Michigan, where he’s from, whose relationship exemplifies the divide, racial and ideological, that has polarized the country. Bleakness and wry humor intermingle as Stanley (Richard Jenkins), who’s spent 38 years working the graveyard shift at chicken and fish joint, and Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), an African-American young father on parole, who will be taking over once the veteran finally moves on.
Cohn believes movies about fast-food restaurants haven’t been successful in the past, mostly because people don’t want to spent an hour and a half watching the inner workings of these establishments. He also says they tend to be visually uninteresting places drenched in orange and yellow neon lights. Still, his commitment to telling tales of the everyday man in the politically maligned region he calls home enticed him to pursue this as his transitional project.
In conversation, Cohn discussed his transition to fiction narratives, how the documentary process informed his interactions with actors, and the lessons Richard Jenkins taught him. The Last Shift opens today.
Filmmaker: Did you ever work in a fast food restaurant?
Cohn: I worked in fast food a hundred years ago when I was 15 or 16 years old. I worked at Burger King. Honestly, the script and the story really just came as an extension of my documentary work being interested in regular people living in the cracks of society. I’m interested in the people you see on the bus or working at the airport, the people that we just pass by. I’ve always had this fascination with the interior lives of people that aren’t typically represented in cinema. I’m not sure why, but a lot of my films have that kind of underdog quality. I’ve always been drawn to stories about underdogs. Maybe it’s because I consider myself an underdog a little bit. I didn’t go to a fancy film school and my road was rough. It was not a very straight path.
Filmmaker: There are very compelling and balanced conversations on race and privilege in the film — conversations that, for fear of conflict, people often avoid having in real life. Even the movie’s conclusion speaks to the divide and the polarization that has become the born, but with a touch of necessary levity.
Cohn: I wrote this movie for two years, I probably wrote a hundred drafts of the script. It wasn’t something I just sat down and wrote over a weekend. There was a lot of thought into the themes and to the characters. All my movies have sort of been about Americana. I’m from the Midwest, and that particular region of the country is often misunderstood, especially on film. I just wanted to write something for an audience of one. I was like, “I don’t see this movie out there. I want to make it for myself,” which is maybe selfish, but that’s just the starting point. I wanted to take a very familiar trope or almost sub-genre, which was this kind of black and white two-hander where the black guy teaches the white guy how to loosen up and the white guy teaches the black guy responsibility, and just completely subvert expectations and write a movie that I felt was a much more honest portrayal of race and class and the working poor. It’s not an activist movie. A lot of the movies that you see currently when they approach race are either too rosy, or are too dire. That’s my own personal opinion. There’s still a huge middle ground there where there’s subtle racism, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. It’s more about what’s not said sometimes. So regarding the ending, it was about finding something that was truthful and honest about where I thought we were as a country in terms of the dialogue we’re having or not having about race. If I can make a movie that can show two flawed working class men with a glimmer of hope of how similar they actually are, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
Filmmaker: Was there a point in which you consider making the documentary version of this movie about the lives of fast food employees? Or did fiction always feel like the right approach for this project?
Cohn: For me, it was a personal choice based on where I was in my career. I had started out wanting to make fiction films and turned to documentary out of necessity. I didn’t really have the tools or the resources to just go out and make a narrative independent film, and also probably didn’t have the confidence right out of college. So I was a screenwriter and struggled with that in Los Angeles for a long time. I remember having a conversation with my mom. It was right after I had run out of money in Los Angeles. I had some minor success as a screenwriter, I had written three or four screenplays, but very mediocre, and my mom said, “I don’t understand why you don’t just make documentaries.” I was a documentary junkie. I would go to the library and check out like 10 documentaries at a time. Eventually I just got tired of waiting and made documentaries for 10 years and fell in love with it. I just absolutely loved the immediacy of it, and that you’re just flexing all of these muscles in real time when it comes to story editing, character development, structure, and all these things that you learn about in screenwriting. In documentary you’re there in the moment and you’re making choices and then you get in the edit and it’s an entire different animal. But after doing documentaries for 10 years, it just wasn’t new and exciting. I wasn’t growing anymore, and I felt it was the time to challenge myself, go for it, and do what I had originally set out to do, which was to make narrative films. Making documentaries was my film school.
Filmmaker: Was the jump into narrative fiction difficult — working in a more controlled environment as opposed to captured events unfolding in real time? There’s manipulation in both of course, but how did the skill set from one to the other translates?
Cohn: I’d say there are a couple of myths there. One is, I think if you’re a good documentary filmmaker, you are controlling what’s going on. Probably more than audiences think. I think if you’re a narrative filmmaker, there’s a lot more out of your control than probably people think. Especially if you’re really empowering your actors, empowering your collaborators to take ownership over the work and listening. That that’s the main thing that I would say you could take from documentary skill set over to narrative. It transfers much more seamlessly than I thought it would. The main job of a narrative director is to know the difference between a good performance and a bad performance. And if you’ve sat with hundreds of hours of interviews and making block-and-tackle documentary filmmaking, you’ve been around a lot of real people, had a lot of real conversations, and can sniff out that sincerity. Making documentaries I could tell when people were putting it on for me. I always say that they should be a best acting category in documentaries. How you talk to an actor is similar to how you talk to one of your documentary subjects.
Filmmaker: For the main location, did you have to construct the spaces we see on screen or did you shoot in an actual business?
Cohn: It was a restaurant that had just gone out of business. We shot in Chicago and we basically started with the bones of a restaurant that was defunct and built a set on top of it, but they had a lot of the equipment there, which was nice, but we came in and built other spaces like the office that you see. It worked out and we were able to have a week of rehearsals in the actual restaurant, which was very helpful for me as a first time narrative filmmaker.
Filmmaker: As you began the process of writing this screenplay to be performed by actors, did you primarily focus on the characters at first or did the themes emerge first?
Cohn: My approach to writing is to always start with a character. And similar to my work in documentary film, I don’t like to start with big themes and find characters to fit into those and communicate those ideas. I like to start with a blank canvas, with an open mind, start with a character and then let the themes come organically out through them, so that I’m not forcing a perspective or a point of view or a social issue. I’m not trying to achieve something with this character. I’m allowing them to live and breathe and be flawed and contradict themselves in a way that feels real and honest, like regular people are. Alexander Payne has been sort of a stewardship for the film since day one. And what I love about his films is that all his protagonists are totally flawed, they don’t say the right things, and that they’re messy. Hopefully that breeds authenticity.
Filmmaker: What was the genesis of Stanley as a character, one who’s proud of his job even if others look down upon him for it?
Cohn: One, when I was working in fast food, like we talked about at the beginning, there were those, types of people, like the manager who takes his job really seriously. Then, when I was doing a teaching fellowship in Albion, Michigan, which is where the movie takes place, I started noticing these kinds of older generational workers, whether they were working at Wal-Mart or working at a Taco Bell. That’s where it started. It was about this guy who really loves his job. You always hear the other guy that’s stuck in a hard spot and who has regrets, but this is the guy that has no regrets. He’s got the best job in the world, which is working at Oscar’s Chicken and Fish for the last 38 years. And I was like, “That’s interesting.” That’s a place for me to start with a really interesting character and then build out from there.
Filmmaker: Stanley appears to feel satisfied with what he’s accomplished in life, there are no major changes in his personality throughout the film, but he’s also not excused for certain behavior or opinions.
Cohn: Stanley certainly, in his restaurant, in his tiny little world, feels in control. But first of all, the movie doesn’t take place over a long period of time, and so the idea that these two characters are going to have a realization, some life altering change, would feel forced. Real people don’t change in four days. For Stanley, played by Richard Jenkins, his story is quite tragic, and I made a point to really hold that character’s feet to the fire for the choices he makes and the things that he says, and not let him off the hook, and for Jevon, played by Shane Paul McGee, to have some hope at the end of his story. To me it’s a movie about place. It’s about two people that really have so much more to gain by coming together than they do through the politicians and the dialogue that’s happening in America right now, which really pulls us apart. It’s a very sensitive time, but the truth of the matter is, we all want, as human beings, the same thing, and politicians especially have prayed on our differences and widened that gap unnecessarily. There’s a huge part of Middle America that feels like things are just out of control right now. So I wanted to bring some sanity and some lightness. It’s so interesting to be able to explore those themes in comedy, to be able to disarm somebody with comedy to then talk about something that can feel very relevant. And you see some of the great comics of all time: Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, or Richard Pryor being able to discuss really important subject matter through comedy.
Filmmaker: Richard Jenkins seems to have an affinity for characters that often exist in the background of life until he brings the to the forefront with a kind of unassuming truthfulness.
Cohn: He’s from the Midwest too. He’s from a very small town and called in DeKalb, Illinois. When we first met and started talking about the movie, we hardly ever talked about the character in the movie. We mostly talked about our past, where we came from, our perspectives, and our sense of humor. He taught a couple of really big lessons. One was that he only takes roles that he thinks he can bring something to, and I remember talking to my manager about that in terms of the next steps for my career after this movie. I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not, not that I don’t want to stretch myself, but he also told me, “You are all you have.” And as an actor he brought himself to the role. And that was really an important lesson for me to remember while we were making the movie. It’s okay to just be you. You can’t pretend to be somebody else; the movie has to be from you, the performance has to come from you. He’s incredible in the movie. It’s one of his best performances and he took that role by the horns, completely owned it, committed to it, and it shows on screen.
Filmmaker: Filmmaking is such an elite art form, which influences who gets to tell what stories based on their resources and access. When you are spotlighting these lives, is there are sense of responsibility in how they are told or how these human beings are presented?
Cohn: That’s one of the reasons I started in documentary, because I felt like you don’t need the resources to go out and tell those kinds of stories, and that was really what was my calling card for a long time. When the filmmakers are coming consistently from a place of privilege, the perspective that they’re having on the material is similar. I always said that I wanted to make a movie about a place that the people from there could watch. And Alexander Payne is a perfect example of that, somebody who’s from Omaha, Nebraska who makes movies that people all across the country can enjoy. You go to the movies to see yourself. And I love the fact that he makes movies about that region, whether it’s Nebraska or About Schmidt, that people from there can go and enjoy, laugh at themselves, and not feel like their pain or struggle is being patronized or overly romanticized. That’s really important to me. I would always use words like “restraint” when I’m talking about an edit or talking about music. Just pulling back and just trying to be as honest as possible.
Filmmaker: There’s an inherent lack of aesthetic beauty to fast food restaurants, or even homogeneity between all of them. How did you process that built-in constraint visually to transform into something more cinematically enticing?
Cohn: That’s what kept me up at night. First of all, 65% of the movie takes place in one location. How do you visually make that interesting? So I talked a lot with my production designer Adri Siriwatt about how to accomplish that in terms of color tones and not making it “the fast food movie.” A lot of it was staying away from the reds and the yellows and you can see that in their costumes, we didn’t have paper hats, the big goofy aprons, or the nametags. I really wanted to strip all that away so it didn’t feel like a fast food movie. That was really important to me, to have it feel a little bit more universal. I haven’t seen a movie that’s really worked in a fast food restaurant for good reason. I don’t think anybody wants to look at that for two hours. So it was a long conversation with my DP and my Production Designer about how we get over those challenges and I’m really happy with the way it turned out visually.
Filmmaker: When you talked about “restraint” in your decision-making process, what exactly are you alluding to — formal choices or the tone?
Cohn: Just not falling into the traps of melodrama, not pushing performances to a place that feels cartoonish. Trusting that an audience is going to understand it and it’s going to get it and not have to club people over the head with storylines or themes. Just understanding that audiences are smarter than you think they are. Audiences don’t show up to the movies and want to drink out of a fire hydrant. You know what I mean? You want to be able to give them a little bit to keep them engaged, but you also want the texture of the film to be organic to the place. People from Michigan speak a certain way and their mannerisms are a certain way, and I wanted to honor that in terms of the earnestness of that particular region.