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Flipping the Script: Mary Harron Interviews Radha Blank About Her Spirited and Wise New York Comedy, The Forty-Year-Old Version

Radha Blank in The 40-Year-Old Version (Photo courtesy of Jeong Park/Netflix)

In Radha Blank’s witty and winning feature debut, The Forty-Year-Old Version, the writer/director adopts a semiautobiographical persona: a hardworking middle-aged playwright and high school teacher who, between hustles to get her latest play produced and after the death of her artist mother, takes to open mic nights as neophyte rapper RadhaMUSprime. Onstage and in the studio with a handsome beats-supplier-turned-paramour, she raps about aging, ambition and life in New York with all the emotional honesty that’s slowly and painfully being drained from her latest play, a Harlem-set gentrification drama mounted by a patronizing white theater producer. 

Scanning Blank’s own biography—she’s written numerous plays, including the critically acclaimed SEED; scripted for television (Empire and the Netflix series adaptation of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, for which she was a producer/writer); and performed hip-hop comedy rap as, yes, RadhaMUSprime—one might be tempted to remove the “semi” from the “autobiographical” description above. Doing so, however, would fail to acknowledge the tremendous comedic smarts and clever self-awareness Blank displays in her Sundance-premiering film. Drawing from her own past, Blank brings a beguiling authenticity to a character we’ve never seen onscreen before, while as a writer/director, she places her honest emotions in service of a nuanced and often hilarious satiric screenplay that is perceptive about the ways in which race is commodified within the culture industry—a cynical process that shapes the types of stories Black creators are enabled to tell today.

Filmmaker asked a colleague, writer/director Mary Harron, to interview Blank about her first feature. In her films I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page and, most recently, Charlie Says, Harron creates keenly intelligent, psychologically acute dramas from biographical or literary source material dealing, often, with society’s outsiders. In their conversation below, Blank and Harron discuss the film business and why women often begin directing careers in their 30s and 40s; shooting in black and white; and why exteriors aren’t all-important when making a New York movie.

The 40-Year-Old Version is currently streaming on Netflix.—Scott Macaulay

Harron: Radha, I remember running into you by chance at the Brooklyn Film Festival. You asked me about shooting in black and white and said that you wanted to do that. I think you just wanted someone to say, “Of course, you should,” which I agreed with.

Blank: You did.

Harron: And when I saw the film I thought it was such a perfect choice. I remember you saying that you wanted the black and white to stake your claim in this tradition of both Woody Allen but also French films of the 1950s and ’60s. But when I saw your film I thought the black-and-white cinematography put it in those traditions as well as within a kind of art film, independent tradition. And also, when you used color, it was fantastic.

Blank: That was to wake people up a little bit and remind them that we are watching a film. This is a story. But yeah, what I’ve done is not something new. I really was just looking to New York filmmakers I was obsessed with. My mom was a cinephile. We watched everything from The Apartment to Repulsion, The Night of the Hunter to The Lost Weekend.

Harron: Oh, Night of the Hunter, my favorite movie.

Blank: That was one of her favorites, too. I’m sure that at 10 or 12, maybe, I shouldn’t have seen some of these films, but she turned me onto those people. And so I wanted to make a film in that tradition. A lot of people—financiers, potential producers who were a part of my six-year journey of getting the film made—were just like, “Why don’t you just shoot it in digital? What is the big deal?” And I was like, “The people who influenced me didn’t have that format.” I just wanted to make it the way that they did. And the other thing that I thought was really great about shooting it black and white is, it lends a certain urgency to the thing. We were just pushing through and treating it like theater—a lot of oners and stuff. But yeah, [classic black-and-white films] and mockumentary films were the things I was studying: Christopher Guest, Rusty Cundieff. Since it is a send-up of my life, I wanted it to feel like there was a crew following me around at times, you know?

Harron: Were you improvising or not?

Blank: No.

Harron: Because I know if you’re shooting on film it’s very difficult to do improvisation.

Blank: No, we didn’t improvise. We pretty much followed the script. Peter Kim, who plays my best friend and agent in the film, we had a rapport that we had developed at Sundance at the Director’s Lab. That was one relationship I felt needed to feel more lived in. But we did a lot of improvising in rehearsal so that we could get a groove, could get the energy between us so it feels like we’ve known each other for 30 years, then go back to the script. 

I’m so proud of the cast. Not this group of producers, but there were [earlier ones] who said, “Oh, maybe we should cut the kids out,” and I said, “We don’t have a movie without them because they are the real, authentic, unbridled New York voices.” I had to find a way to earn everybody’s place in the film because I wanted it to feel heavily populated. I wanted it to feel like a lot of people are part of the story, telling the story, and I’m just like a satellite. I’m pretty much the straight man; they’re the flavor and color. And I think I’m in my movie because, well, one, I can’t play 39 forever, but also, it’s just an excuse to pay homage to those mockumentary films where the people are doing a version of themselves. And an excuse to celebrate my parents and other Black artists, other struggling artists in New York. But I’m not looking for a career as an actor. I’m a reluctant lead at times, and I’m a little weird about the attention.

Harron: I liked that your film captures the ordinary life of the artist. You’re not super famous and you’re not starving. It’s just a kind of day-to-day struggle. You have a success and then you have years where you don’t have a success. I think that’s very common.

Blank: Exactly.

Harron: I think this happens to women quite a bit, and sometimes it’s hard to follow up a success. Like the thing about “30 Under 30”—people are exciting and then they’re left with trying to keep going. I think it’s a very common experience for writer/filmmakers.

Blank: Right. There isn’t a 50 Under 50 or a 60 Under 60.

Harron: I think it affects women more. For our whole lives, we live with this sort of sword over us like, “You’re over 30, now you’ll never get married.” Here in America, I think there is a cult of youth around directors. I know that affects men as well, but I feel like for women, we’re getting that as directors and also as women. “Oh, you’re hitting 40?” Whatever, shoot me. I think that it’s very important for us to change that story.

I was a journalist until I was 30, then I got into British television, in documentary, and I learned on the job. I was trying to write scripts on the side. We don’t all come out of film school. We don’t all know what we want to do, and for women, [filmmaking] wasn’t an obvious career path when we were growing up, you know? We can’t be condemned to the sort of male romantic myth of the young male genius director, Orson Welles, making Citizen Kane at 25. When I worked in television, I was a researcher, and it took me years to be able to get to direct. We made a film in France about the French writer Marguerite Duras, who had started making films, I think, in her 50s. What I most loved was that she’d just gone and done it, and she didn’t care. She wouldn’t let her age [stop her]. At that point, I was in my 30s and thought, I’m just going to do it until I can’t do it anymore. I’m not going to let age stand in my way. We can’t allow people to say what kind of careers [we should have] and when we should start and when we should stop. 

Blank: I never thought I’d be starting a career as a director at this age, and it’s given me really something to look forward to. Because I’m coming from theater, where it’s all about talking within this one box on stage, I feel like maybe my characters will talk less and less with each film, and I will get better at working in the visual medium. This [discussion about age] is something that kind of ties into the film. [The Radha character] decides, “I’m going to rap, I’m going to rhyme,” and the movie isn’t 8 Mile—it isn’t about someone who is very seriously pursuing a rap career. It’s about someone for whom rap is a meditation, something the character is leaning on to get through grieving her mother and not having success. I think the spirit of the movie is, “I don’t care, this is something I have to do.” What does she have to lose? It’s based off of the idea that a woman rapping at 40 is a joke to people. I had a one-act play about these two women who are pretty much like Salt-N-Pepa—hip-hop stars in their day who decide in their 30s and 40s as moms, wives and teachers to go back to the art form. And it wasn’t a comedy. I remember expressing it to a friend, and their first reaction was to laugh. That is probably why there’s a movie, because those two things don’t go together. A 40-year-old woman and hip-hop—it just doesn’t, you know? I mean, unless we are revering the greats from 20, 30 years ago, like Queen Latifah, Foxy Brown, Lil’ Kim. But somebody actually thinking they could make something at that age [in an art form] that is so tied to youth culture, tied to a culture that, when it comes to women, is not [what we are supposed to] write? Although, of course, rappers like Rapsody and Chika have changed people’s perception that women can write just as well as men.

But I’m in love with a culture that hasn’t always been loving to women, namely Black women. We’re often seen through a very hypersexualized lens. So, I do feel like it’s art imitating life imitating art—here’s this person who is going to make a film in her 40s and wants to shoot it on black and white. It was very easy for people to either dismiss me or to have little expectations. But just like when I’m rhyming, I’m there to stake my claim. I’ve been in the shadows preparing for the moment for a long time. And so, I stand by this film. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly me.

Harron: Oh, by the way, I loved the Bronx female rappers. They’re real, right?

Blank: Yeah, they’re all real women. Babs Bunny, who hosted, it’s her brand [Queen of the Ring]. I remember seeing it online and saying, I need these women in my movie. In an ideal world, I’d have all these other scenes that I had to cut out. There was a moment where Radha actually talks to the women and learns that they are mothers and token booth clerks and teachers. They have these other lives. But I do think that the visual does it. Like you see Miss Undastood in full hijab. You see an out-and-proud butch Latina [Mis. Fit]. Anyone can show up in that space if they have the skills. That’s what I’m saying about women in general: If we have the skills, then we definitely should be in that space and not disregarded. That was why I did that [scene]—just to say, I’m not the one who’s pursuing a serious career [in rap], but look at these women who are, and they don’t look anything like what you’ve been sold around the idea of women in hip-hop, you know? It’s the part that was kind of like a documentary for me, you know?

Harron: I was so happy to see them. What I also said [to myself] was, “Well, you can rap if you have something to say.” When I was trying to write my first film, I Shot Andy Warhol, I remember thinking, I don’t know if I can direct or not, but I have something to say. That’s something that transcends. And do you have a story to tell? It was seven years from having the idea to it being realized. But I also think that for anybody considering trying to make their career in film, sometimes timing’s on your side. And when time is not on your side, that’s when you have to kind of endure and keep going until the next time you hit the doors and they fly open.

Blank: I agree. The film really came out of a lot of frustration and adversity. I was working on my first paid gig as a screenwriter. I was doing an adaptation, and they loved the first draft. They loved the second. They did not love the third, and I got let go and was kind of devastated. I was helping put a friend on tape, and she had an iPhone on a tiny tripod. That’s when the wheels started turning. I was like, “I’m going to do a web series. I’m going to write, direct and star in it. This way, I can’t get fired.” That was the beginning of The 40-Year-Old Version. The thing that transformed it from a web series to a film, honestly, was losing my mother. I was going to shoot the first two episodes of the web series as a crowdfunding tool to fund the back half. Two weeks before that happened, my mom died. She was such a force in my life, I couldn’t imagine doing anything creative without her being here. I had created all this music attached to the web series, then I just started going out and performing as RadhaMUSprime just to get through my grief. And when I came back on this web series, I added this element—the loss of my mom—because it was part of my life.

Harron: I was very interested in the whole section of the film dealing with the theater world. I loved the mystic Black theater director. 

Blank: Based on a true story. I was workshopping a play at a theater, and when I’d asked for more money, he started bringing up the ancestors. He said, “You know, this has been ordained by the ancestors, and it’s not about money.” And I’m like, “Well, how am I going to pay my rent?” So, that was based on a real exchange, but it was also an opportunity to show the disparity between the Black theater, which is seriously underfunded, and the white theater. In the white theater, they can have arguments about whether or not somebody’s vegan. In the Black theater, or at least where the Black plays get supported, there’s always some kind of conflict around pain. It can’t be a play about a woman who, newly divorced, is trying to decide what she’s going to do with her life. It has to be about strife. I don’t know the state of theater right now because of COVID—I’m sure everybody’s suffering. But for the most part, it’s really hard to get produced in theater spaces where the artistic directors are catering to the membership, and the memberships are usually people who can afford a $100 ticket. So, it’s usually older white people, you know? And when Black people show up, it is the kind of Black lives and experiences that those older white people deem as authentic—usually some singing, dancing, slavery, war-torn, strife shit. Talking about art imitating life imitating art, I was at the Palm Springs “Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch Awards” luncheon, very probably holding my award, and a white producer came up to me and said, “I’m looking for a writer, I have this story about the first Black woman to run from slavery and become a lawyer in New York.” Here I am, I’ve got an award as a director, and somebody still sees me as their hired hand doing a slave tale.

Harron: You’re going to write the musical about Harriet Tubman!

Blank: Oh, yeah. Harriet Tubman/Ida B. Wells/Shirley Chisholm because they’re kinda all the same person when it comes to Black History Month. Hopefully, my film is a part of a discussion about gatekeepers and making people more aware of why there’s such a desert in terms of Black stories—it’s because they’re people who make a decision about which Black stories get through. Not every Black woman playwright goes through this experience, but I always felt like I had to be a certain kind of Black writer or reflect a certain kind of Black life if I wanted to have more success, you know? 

Harron: Yeah, and I was so interested to see in your film that wealthy white world of arts benefits. It’s kind of satirical but also affecting—we think people are writing these plays because these are the stories they are burning to tell, but sometimes they’re the only stories they can get on stage. 

Blank: It’s the story that pays, exactly. I love behind-the-scenes movies—Bullets Over Broadway, Living in Oblivion—where we see the real drama happening behind the curtain. I want to do a mockumentary about a revival of a Black play from the ’70s. 

Harron: I really enjoyed your film’s vision of home—a home that we don’t always see. What was the vision of Harlem that you wanted to put on the screen?

Blank: When you think about films like Manhattan and Annie Hall, there is all this attention paid to, rightfully so, these exteriors, these beautiful vistas and landscapes. I wanted some of that in my film, but the thing about New York that is most exciting to me are the people. And so, I just wanted to say, it is very gentrified, but there are still really beautiful people here—shop owners, people on the street. That is the landscape I wanted to focus on, the cacophony of voices that live here. Let the camera linger for a little bit longer, so they’re not just a colorful character. This is a person with an opinion. Show Harlem, show Brownsville through the people. We don’t have a whole lot of exteriors. I think I shot all of them in half a day and then used the other half to steal some subway shots. When I was editing, I thought, maybe for the pickup day I’ll go out and get more stuff. And when I looked at the film, I was just like, I don’t know that it needs it. The story’s about the people, and there are plenty of New York films where you can see twinkling lights and buildings and all that stuff.

That was the thing about black and white: It was very deliberately trying to harken back to a particular time in New York. Some people said, “Oh, it takes place in the ’90s, right?” No, it takes place now. But I don’t mind that it feels like that because for me as an artist, as a kid, as a lover of hip-hop culture, the ’90s is what we called the Golden Era, you know? That was what I was trying to make it feel like: that old New York, where we could still get that Greek-looking cup of coffee or go to Chock Full o’Nuts and pick up the tchotchkes, whatever. You know, just something that feels a little bit old and nostalgic.

I have a question for you. You’re about to do this [Salvador] Dalí movie, which I’m so excited about. How is it that you’ve been able to remain an artist and that your voice, even in work that might be more commercial or work-for-hire, is still so singular? It’s something I am hoping to do as I move forward through a career when Hollywood is maybe ready to pull me into their projects. How is it that you’ve been able to remain the artist that you are?

Harron: Oh, thank you. It’s never an easy path. I also, like you, made my first film in my 40s. After your first film [is] a success at Sundance, for anybody who has that experience, you get sent a lot of bad scripts, and I’m sure you have already. One thing is to find producers who will stick with you. Also, sometimes it makes your life very difficult and sometimes it makes the film almost impossible to make, but in some ways, it’s better to compromise on the budget or have less money than to do a project that you don’t believe in. But I also believe in making money and doing some commercial work, because I think you learn. Like, I did a Lifetime movie, which I really enjoyed doing. 

You’re very lucky that you’re a writer. I think it’s much easier to try and make a more individual career if you are a writer. I’ve read the script for your second movie, and it’s good because it’s a really interesting story and not too expensive. You know, my mind kind of ticks over when I’m looking at someone’s script now, how hard is it for them to get this made? Having said that, my Dalí film, we’re having to make it for way too little money. But you know, you can also find circumstances and people who will work with you. Charlie Says we shot very cheaply in 20 days. Finding collaborators is very important, then mixing it up with a TV show for money or because it’s fun. I have always loved Howard Hawks, and when I’m doing TV I sometimes think of myself as a director in the studio system. Hawks would do a Western and then he’d do a noir, a thriller, a romantic comedy. It’s like, well, that’s a tradition. But I think for that individual voice that you have, the second film is important. You’re trying to refine it.

There’s this great quote by Charlie Kaufman from a screenwriting lecture he did for the BFI [as part of the BFI & BAFTA Screenwriter Lecture]. He says, all you have to give is you. Not someone’s idea of what you are. What you have to give is your individual take, your instincts, your intuition. And your inner voice, which is what told you you had to shoot in black and white. When I was doing The Notorious Bettie Page, company after company said, “You will never get this made. And why does it have to be [primarily] black and white?” I didn’t even have an articulate reason until after I made the film, then I understood why. So, it’s very important not to blunt or muffle this inner voice—always listen to that.

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