Shot Reverse Shot: The Inheritance Director Ephraim Asili in Conversation with Residue Director Merawi Gerima (Part One)
As I wrote last year in my 25 New Face profile of Ephraim Asili, his first feature, The Inheritance, begins when “Julian (Eric Lockley) moves into his late grandmother’s house and initiates an experiment in Black collective living. The influence of Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, evident in the film’s poster onscreen and the house’s boldly painted walls, is mixed with Asili’s personal memories of Philadelphia’s MOVE members (the Philadelphia native first met them as a teenager) and living in a Black Marxist collective. Shot, per Asili’s usual practice, on 16mm, The Inheritance marks a shift from overtly experimental to essentially narrative work. It’s literally colorful, unexpectedly funny in depicting the conflicts that can emerge from collective living and sincerely invested in how aspirant revolutionaries can learn from past struggles.”
With The Inheritance, which premiered at last year’s TIFF, entering release from Grasshopper Film this Friday, we asked fellow first-feature director (and 25 New Face) Merawi Gerima to interview Asili. Gerima’s feature debut Residue premiered at Venice last year (and can now be found on Netflix via ARRAY Releasing) and displays a similarly experimentally-inflected, personal/political engagement with Black experiences grounded in specific cities—Philadelphia for Asili, Washington D.C. for Gerima—and their respective histories of both gentrification and resistance. Part one of their conversation covers the film from conception to the beginning of production; part two picks up their conversation from production through post.—Vadim Rizov
Gerima: Whenever I watch your films, I’m really struck by the thought, “That’s the type of filmmaker I want to be.” Because whether it’s through hard work and sure, consistent dedication and resistance, or whether it’s because that’s just how you function and you can’t see any other way, it’s clear you’re not making work to satiate these incessant demands or voices that I think filmmakers in America, just by growing up in this country, seem to develop in our minds. You know what I mean?
Gerima: At the end of the day, it determines how you arrange your life as an artist, but also as someone who has to sustain themselves.
Asili: Exactly, exactly. Gotta look at it in terms of the long game, you know? That’s always something I’m trying to always focus on, not that thing of getting it over one time.
Gerima: What’s the long game to you?
Asili: Artistically speaking, it’s the concept of the catalog. I came up in ’90s hip-hop. Who’s the greatest? The catalog doesn’t lie, you can’t be the greatest at one album. Then: time, right? A lot of artists who seem like the central or crucial art of the time is usually not the art people are looking at 10 and 20 years later. And trends in the industry, it’s always changing. But if you can find a throughline through that—that’s why I’m always thinking like, I wouldn’t want somebody to watch my first film, then see I made Lady and the Tramp 7 and they’re like, “How did he get from that to that?”
Gerima: So, what would you say the long game is politically? Because it’s impossible to talk about your work trying to divorce art from politics—as if you could ever do that.
Asili: I mean, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t see something like the United States of America with 50 states in it existing forever. I wouldn’t be surprised even if, in our lifetime, California became a country. So, I think we’re looking at a future that looks like the past, where people are more tribal and live in smaller federations. But my optimistic sense of that is, “Well, we’ll then know why we like to keep certain spaces from certain people in the future,” whereas in the past it’s like, “Why are we separated?,” then people coming together and getting into conflicts and things. So, hopefully we learn the advantage of doing things on smaller scales, where we can have more unity. The idea that we’re just going to have the same America for white supremacists and Black radicals, I don’t see that really happening. But I do see there being a northeast corridor, and a California, and a Midwest that’s its own thing. I think that’s the future. That then connects everything to land: where are you trying to hold down? Where are you going to draw that line and not move?
Gerima: How does that translate to you as a filmmaker? Do you see a responsibility to usher in a certain future? I think in many ways, The Inheritance already points to that. This guy’s attempting to create this future in the way he lives with people who are not all peas in a pod, trying to foster this collective, maybe anarchist existence. What I understand is that this is drawing on previous experience, so, at this moment in time, why was it important for you to revisit that moment in your life? Was it nostalgia?
Asili: A little bit. I mean, at the time that I really sat down and was like, “This is the film I’m going to make,” there were a lot of concerns. I’d been making these short films and was happy with what I was doing, but I’m too young to get too comfortable in what I’m doing. And you have it too, clearly, because you made a feature—that thing where you’ve got to get it out of your system. It’s always been there in a way, but you’re at that moment where it’s like, “No, I’ve got to do it now.” So, I was feeling that energy, and it was like, of all the stories that I could approach, which one do I want to take on? I knew I wanted to do something autobiographical, because I don’t have a background in screenwriting, so I need to write from the heart because I’m not just going to be able to dream up some crazy thing. So, I thought, “What’s the most unique thing about my upbringing?” And it took me right to my collective living experiences.
At the same time, Obama had just gone out. Trump won. I was in Michigan for a long time during the election. I thought he was going to win after a certain point. I could just tell, you know? So, I was writing from this point of view: this guy’s going to win, things are going to get really ugly and it’s almost like I wished I could be with my collective in that moment. But then it’s like, well, whatever happened? And Black Lives Matter was really starting to take off around that time, so I wanted to look at some of these fault lines within Black culture, some of the blockages that should be easy to overcome, but why haven’t we overcome them? Something as little as: When I lived in a collective, we were Pan-African in the sense that we were not all African American. It was inherent. It wasn’t like, we’re reading literature from the Continent, but we’re all African American. It’s like, how you going to call yourself a Pan-African, but you don’t even interact with the Africans in your community and so forth? So, what happens when you put all that together and what does that look like? And can that be portrayed on film as a loving, constructive thing, as opposed to like, “Oh, you’ve got jokes about them”?
Gerima: As a filmmaker, the kneejerk response is to not take a side, to not lean the film too much in one direction or another. It’s these reins we take on as filmmakers, whether through film school or other things, where we try to hide our opinions in the work as best we can. And sometimes, you’ve just got to wonder where that comes from and in what scenarios it’s useful and when it’s not. I know my questions are leading, but I find myself watching your work, thinking about my own battles with the medium as a storyteller, trying to tell a story and throw all of these kind of ingrained ideas to the wind. And in many ways, your first feature is such a perfect opportunity to destroy, attack or test the correctness of these things. Was this process useful for you in that way of letting go or strengthening?
Asili: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like, that first feature: you only get one, right? What are you going to do battle with in that one film? You can’t do it with everything. First and foremost, I’m making something that goes into what I’ll call the church of cinema. Everything that ever existed goes into it—good, bad, ugly—and I’m putting my entry into that. That church is indifferent, it doesn’t care what I’m putting in. It’s just taking my deposit, right? So, when I’m thinking about the content and the activism in it, if I want my deposit to stand out in that church, it’s going to have to do some sort of service for that structure, for the cinema. If I’m not thinking about it formally, I don’t think the rest of it matters—because it might be hot for a minute, but in the long game, no one’s going to care. You gotta do that, so someone will come back and be like, “Oh, there’s that thing. It’s that much higher off the ground than it was before.” No matter how much I care about my content, I know I have to find a way to make it cinematic. And I feel like this is a trap for a lot of Black filmmakers when we’re talking about these sorts of concerns—it doesn’t necessarily mean going for maximum entertainment value, right? It means thinking about the work in ways that other people don’t, combining ideas that maybe other people haven’t.
I’m hoping I can do justice to what I think about MOVE or what have you within that, but I can’t put that ahead of the medium. And that’s frustrating. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with that, but I really feel like that’s the truth of the matter. When I look at who I consider to be the OGs, the greats and people that have inspired me—it’s probably a little uncomfortable to talk about your father [Haile Gerima] when we’re talking about this, but nonetheless it’s a very real and important part of the conversation. You watch his work, you watch the work of anybody that came out of the so-called L.A. Rebellion, and it’s not just that they’re telling dope stories that need to be told. The form and the content are one-to-one. That work’s lasting appeal has everything to do with that; every so often the work comes right back to the top, because there’s so much experimentation happening formally that rhymes with the content. So, if I want my film to be relevant in 20 years, I have to take some of those formal risks all of those makers did that paid off. We still watch Killer of Sheep, we still watch Sankofa. They’re formally innovative films in addition to the content.
Gerima: What Residue taught me was that regardless of the ideas that you come in with, it’s really the material economic realities of your production that in most ways determine the form of your film: your ability to frame shots, the way you frame them, your ability to try again, to take another take, to replace that one person with just their voice because you can’t afford a uniform for a police officer, for example. I think a lot of discussions about Black cinema oftentimes focus primarily on the concepts we’d like to adhere to. But I think it’s really focusing on the reality of moment, the actual moment in which we went to war in production. So: I want to know more about your production, man! From the writing, to the production, to the post—maybe let’s start with production. How did that go once you had a green light in your mind?
Asili: I’m so glad to hear you touch on these subjects as someone who’s been through it. I didn’t know this stuff until I made the feature, and I imagine you learned a lot on the job. Like: shot reverse shot costs money. That’s doing something twice, so that’s not nothing. And it’s funny, because when we watch these big-budget movies and they’re just people wearing clothes walking around—we know big-time actors get paid a lot, but why is it so expensive? That’s coverage, that’s just shot reverse shot. When I look at all these innovators and what happens in Black cinema, it’s something that is embedded in this certain way of viewing specifically African American history. People want to have this perception that people started out oppressed, and there’s this upward climb that rides along with capitalism to freedom, right?
The freedom of the Black filmmaker becomes not having these shortcomings, where I can’t choose to do shot reverse shot. When you start to look at ideas around the Black aesthetic as a historic thing, maybe there were some opportunities in those restrictions. Maybe, in fact, something that makes it Black is about taking that and flipping it. So, for me, at first I had that attitude of, “Oh, I can’t do this like this, I need this. I need that.” Then it was like, “How can I pivot on that and actually incorporate it into something that I’m using?” So, I tried to embrace all of that stuff. Again, when I look at the great works, those weird gaps end up making them work. Like, I never want to see a new version of The Spook Who Sat by the Door—they look like they’re in a gymnasium pretending to be in the CIA, and that’s a part of the charm, so I embraced that. But then you start rationalizing it and well, that’s a very convenient psychology when you don’t have money and you’re working, but does that work for other people later?
Going into production, I knew I had to have strategies. I told myself right off the bat, “I’m going to do my best to never do shot reverse shot. Every shot is an individual shot. I have to find a way to make it flow. By avoiding the trap of continuity, that I can maybe escape some of these things. I’m just going to turn that into my stylistic approach and embed all of that – the long takes, pivoting my camera shots.” So, I have three shots in one setup. I’m going to hold off on doing a shallow for a good shot with a 35 millimeter lens until a particular point. All of that is embedded, and I’m fortunate enough to be a cinematographer. As I’m writing, I’m thinking through the script in that same way. And I was able to bring a lot of my experience in experimental film, the DIY approach, to a feature. We didn’t have very much money. For what we had and the amount of time we had, we were able to get a feature done just because I was doing all these jobs and not worrying about any of that.
I couldn’t do any really extra takes. We were shooting on film, so you don’t have the stock to do another take, or you don’t have the time, or you’re not paying people enough to be doing that many takes, and so forth. That’s all in there. When I think about that, I go back and look at, say, a film by Oscar Micheaux. And it’s just like, “Man, I can’t complain. What we’re talking about doing is baby stuff compared to what they were doing then.” So, it’s all opportunity to me. If someone says, “Here’s a roll of film and $100,” I’m not going, “Ah, what are you going to do?” What can you do with $100? If the money comes, great, but try to live within those restrictions sometimes.
Gerima: So then I’ve got to ask you: if you don’t have much money, why shoot film? What was the consideration?
Asili: That’s a great, fair question. I’m not trying to be funny, but: because I’m a filmmaker. That’s what I do, it’s what I chose, it’s what I signed up for. So long as other people can do it and it’s a possibility, it’s what I strive for. It doesn’t have to be that way, but again, I’m a photographer in addition to all of the other things, and I can’t separate that from the writing, from the casting, from anything. I can see the grain, I can see scratches in the film, it’s almost like I think in 24 frames per second. And so, for me, video is a slightly different medium and would’ve required me to rethink my whole approach to cinema to switch. To use a musical metaphor, it’d be like switching from saxophone to trumpet—I’ve got to learn how to play the thing all over again. At the end of the day, in a film like this, it’s not the film stock that is the breaking point when you’re getting to a certain budget. But one of the conditions that enabled that was that I had to shoot it in that studio. That was a give and take: I didn’t want to shoot in a studio, I wanted to go on location, but I wanted it on film. So, there’s a compromise. I told myself I would never want to work in a film studio, and I did, but I was able to maintain shooting on film because I felt like that was more important. The hip hop in me, I don’t want to be biting anybody else’s style. I don’t want people stepping on my toes. The amount of people who are working in 16 is very few. I feel like it’s a lane I’ve carved out that I’d like to stay in.
Gerima: One thing I found while doing Residue is what we lacked in finances, money and resources, we made up for in community power—folks volunteering time, equipment, food, somewhere to sleep. Who else was there with you in the trenches? What community embraced you in the production of this film?
Asili: So many people, especially when you look at it in the widest context. Sonia Sanchez was a big part of it from the beginning, from me even mentioning that I wanted to do this sort of project to then coming up and workshopping with us, then appearing in the film. These sort of people who are not actors, they don’t need this for their career. They’re doing me a favor, is how I perceive it. I have a friend Jon [Eckel] who, when I went to Philly to shoot the location shots, I just slept on his couch, these kind of things. Homie Mike Mosby, people who when I was bringing my set design stuff to the set, helped me with the U-Haul truck. These are people who want to see this work get made and believe in it from the community point of view, to see someone like themselves get to that level. There are a lot. My friend Raphael [Marrero Jr.], who I give credit for as spiritual advisor, essentially that was the work he was doing. All of that glue work that doesn’t get you on the Screen Actors Guild or anything. You just do it.
I think it’s important, when we’re talking about the future of Black film, that we are having more open discussions around budgets. Not so much who’s got the biggest budget and who blew their budget, but just so people know: what does it cost? How much money do you make making a film? I don’t know what people get paid to make a big movie. I feel like I should, but it’s rude to ask, so I don’t. Anyway, the way this funding worked is that Troy, New York, where I shot it, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Performing Arts Center gave me like a $6,000 grant based on the strength of my short films. They’re like, “What are you doing next?” “I want to make a feature.” “Here’s a grant. Go to Philly and write.” They liked the script that I was writing, so they were like, “Why don’t you come back? We’ll bring in some actors and you can do a workshop. If you do a table read, we’ll consider that an artist in residency thing.” I performed the table read as a play, and we brought Sonia Sanchez in to be part of that. [Then] I tried to get funding to shoot this film and couldn’t—nobody wanted to touch it, you know? And I’m not the kind of person that’s going to fly to Sundance every year. I’ll ask people once, maybe twice. It’s a pride thing. It’s probably a mistake. I’m not putting anyone down, everybody has different assets. Some people can persevere through that. I can’t. So, it was just like, “All right, you all don’t want to do it. I’ll find some other way.”
EMPAC were like, “Tell you what. We’ll pay for the film stock. We’ll pay for the actors. We’ll house everyone. We’ll construct the set if you shoot it on location inside the building.” That was the restriction. If I set foot outside and shot in front of the building, they couldn’t help me. So, anything outside of that, I paid out of pocket, then they did all those things. The set design in terms of what’s in the house, that’s all out of pocket. That’s just me buying things and putting it in the movie. Then I got a grant from my job. I’m a professor at Bard College. They were generous enough to give me a research grant that I used to buy a Super 16 millimeter film camera because it was like, “I can shoot this film, and many films after this, for the price of what it would cost to rent the equipment.”
In terms of concerns you have around craft services and people having somewhere to stay, I have to thank EMPAC for just having the faith to let me do it as an artist in residency situation, because they’re not a film production studio. They’re a regular performing arts center, so this was a big experiment. Can we pull this off? Can a feature film get made under these circumstances with a performing arts crew as opposed to a film crew? Then I hired some former students to help behind the camera, some young women of color, trying to provide some opportunity there. Half of my cast was actually students I was teaching in Black Film Studies. We had these really great debates, and I’m like, can I bring some of that? I’m trying to give them some opportunities and be that person that I didn’t have when I got out of film school. Nobody was like, “Hey, come be in my movie, come help me work on this scene with dialogue.”
They never actually told me what the cap was. It would just be like, what do you need? And I’d ask for something and they’d say yes or no. In the end, they put the time and money into it. I couldn’t give you an exact number, but they probably put the ballpark of $60,000 into it. I covered the rest out of pocket. So, it wasn’t nothing, but relative to the way it seems to be playing out in the world now—the film, which I didn’t expect it to do as well as it’s doing, it’s competing with films that have budgets well beyond that. My $60,000 budget is, in the grand scheme of things, nothing.
Gerima: I was going to ask you, how long did the shoot take?
Asili: Money, right? They built the set for five days. I had a 10-day residency, but five of the days, they were just building the set. They finished the set on a Friday. That afternoon, we started shooting. I shot the entire thing in four and a half days, functioning as set designer and cinematographer—or I should say director of photography. I would get people to run the camera after I did the blocking and all of that. This was furious, breakneck speed. I was doing rewrites at night a lot of the time, blocking in the morning. Personally, I was doing 19, 20-hour days for that window of time, going for it. But it had to be very efficient because it was just like, “All right, that’s the take, next scene.” Even if we had more money, with that restriction on time, there wasn’t an opportunity to do a lot of second guessing or multiple takes. Things either did or didn’t work, and we just kept it moving.
Gerima: It’s incredible, man. I think sometimes some of these things I think that the masses of folks who are not in film, Black folks especially, you really want them to know just how much work goes into these projects. I mean, that’s next level. Residue was about 21 days total, but two weeks one summer and one week the next summer. And that almost killed me, the first two-week summer was just rough. But there’s a brother who’s got a film out, Skinner Myers, called The Sleeping Negro. It just played at Slamdance. They shot, I think, eight six-hour days. You all are basically shooting one-to-one ratios and meanwhile I was shooting digital—10 to one, 14 to one, something ridiculous, even though we were moving. I have nothing but admiration, nothing but admiration for that.
Asili: Thanks. I have to take a moment to acknowledge the talent that I was working with, because without my actors it wouldn’t have been possible. I never directed a conventional film, so I’m sure my direction was very unorthodox for them, but I’m so glad I had the people that I had. The guy who’s always in my movies you mentioned—that’s Julian Rozzell Jr., and he’s just, like, my guy. He takes pride in that grit and work. Having people like that enables that, because there’s really no point in continuing it if things consistently are not working. So it’s like, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, getting that ratio down. Like you’re saying, you hope people on the backend acknowledge that this is crazy hard work.