Shot Reverse Shot: The Inheritance Director Ephraim Asili in Conversation with Residue Director Merawi Gerima (Part Two)
(Click here to read part one of Gerima and Asili’s conversation.)
Gerima: Since we’re talking about the realities of Black cinema: when you don’t have time or money, a lot of times rehearsal plays an important part. I wanted to ask you about your process with your actors before you got to the studio. Did you have time to rehearse?
Asili: Not as much as I would’ve liked, but what we did have, that I would say was even better than rehearsals was, I had written about half of the script, but I had pretty elaborate backstories. So, when I went to workshop with these scraps of the script and backstories, we were able to do things where I could get everybody into character and try out scenarios, sometimes even improvise. This went on for almost two weeks. I would occasionally have them reading stuff, watching movies. When that was all done, I had this treasure trove of things I could pull from in writing the rest of the script. So, by the time I was putting scripts in hands, what they were reading sounded pretty close to who they were and what they were playing.
We had a few days of rehearsal, but I wasn’t able to participate. Again, it’s my naïve experience of making my first feature: I thought I’d have five days to rehearse with my actors, then we’d shoot for five days. But it’s like, I’m getting called over to the set every five minutes to see if that outlet looks right and if the lamp has the right wattage and so forth. So, I never really had the time to sit down and rehearse the way I wanted. But I knew that what I was giving them in terms of dialogue was putting them in a pretty comfortable position where they have the opportunity to win. So, the rehearsal was more energetic as opposed to like, I need you to know your lines. I tried to go that route, and it was backfiring because I found myself getting mad at people. And it was like, the last thing I can do is be yelling at people about not knowing their lines and stuff. It’s not going to help the film.
Gerima: So did you find yourself kind of loosening the reigns and it becoming more improvisational?
Asili: The opposite, actually. I quickly learned that professional actors, generally speaking, do not like improvising at all when there are time restrictions. It’s unfair to say, “Just go ahead. Let’s improvise—but I need you to not take more than 45 seconds on this take.” They’re counting 45 seconds, the camera’s there, everybody’s there—that’s me putting someone in a position to lose. So, I found that things really worked when I stopped being so egalitarian with my dialogue and saying, “Let’s just go with what’s on the page.” Because also, when you ask people to contribute in a certain kind of way, like “let’s improvise,” they then feel like that’s their job to give you something extra: “OK, I’m going to say some crazy shit now.” And that wasn’t the intention of the scene. Just do it how it’s on the page, and we don’t need to do 50 takes so that you say “mother” instead of “mutha” or something like that. Whatever comes out is probably OK; just know that that’s OK.
My one hard rule was, I don’t care how long it takes anyone to get through a scene, you just can’t stop. You have to go all the way. If you stutter, flub a bunch of words, say the wrong word, guess what? We do that in real life. It’ll just add some authenticity. Just keep going, because I couldn’t cut, go back, next take. But yeah, a lot of my ideas about giving autonomy and agency to the actors didn’t work in the way I thought they would and only made them uncomfortable. So, I think giving them the comfort of knowing what they had to say allowed them to explore their characters in other ways.
Gerima: Did you cast them based on their personalities? I know you used some students.
Asili: The whole script was like my autobiography filtered through students I had in mind, so I would be writing a character and thinking of a student I had. When it came time to casting, I tried to cast on the merit of each person, their body of work, if they seemed like the kind of person that would be willing to put up with my type of direction. I didn’t really care if I felt like they were strong actors or something like that. I thought, “It’s my job to make them feel like they’re coming off in the way that they should onscreen, but do they intellectually seem like they would be into making a film like this?”
I’ll give one example. In my first draft of the film, there’s a character named Patricia. I had her as being from South Africa, because I had a South African housemate back at the time. The woman that I ended up casting is from South Sudan. All right, let’s just make the character from South Sudan because in a tight spot she can lean on that rather than being like, what do I know? On the last day of the shoot, I needed certain things to happen that hadn’t happened. The night before, I ended up rewriting that scene where she’s giving them a language lesson. Just because of the fact that I made her character sound Sudanese, she went right into it. These are the little things I feel can really help, that when you’re working for the executives and shit you can’t really do. I know her very well, and I knew how she would deal with that scene and how her even getting that spotlight would resonate with the other people. These are the elements that I’m really playing with. That’s the kind of sort of subtle shift that might change about a character. The character’s identical in terms of what happens to them, what they do, their occupation, but it’s just like, why don’t we just put it in a way that’s a little bit more comfortable for that person.
[The character of ] Jamel, who plays the trumpet: I needed a trumpet. True story. That guy wasn’t a student in my class. He was a student at Bard where I teach. I did an open casting call, right? Not one man showed up. And I’m like, damn, I don’t know what I’m going to do. And I needed a trumpet player, I can’t just have any guy, right? So, we’re packing up, getting ready to leave the room and someone knocks on the door, walks in and goes, “My name is Timmy Trumpet and I’d like to audition for this part.” His name is really Timmy Trumpet, and we were able to cast him. His part almost wrote itself in some ways. So, it was a combination of casting based on what I need, and casting people that can do stuff. It’s like, “OK, you can act, but if you can play the drums, too, then I can get another scene out of that”—hustling a little bit, you know?
Gerima: Yeah, and what absolute luck that your actor who you’ve used before is actually a beast on drums, too.
Asili: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons I work with him. [Julian] can do anything. He’s a painter, he can write, he pops up on TV, he’s very active in the theater situation in New York. And he’s the first person I met when I moved to Harlem. He had an art show at this house where he was playing in a band. I went to see that. After the show, everyone went up to the second floor of the house and there was a show of paintings, and it was his show. I was like, “Wait, isn’t he in like theater? I’ve got to work with this guy.” Everybody should have someone like that. He can jump right into anything and he’s passionate. He loves it.
Gerima: You mentioned writing at night to adapt to the day’s challenges. You kind of watch yourself get better as you are in the process of making the film. Film is really the best mirror, because you see everything about yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses, day by day. A lot of times it just comes down to “I can live with that, I can’t live with that.” All those thousands of questions of pre-production were coming at you left and right. You had to get good at sifting through very quickly at high speed.
Asili: The main thing that I had to learn about is, what can be delegated and did you choose the right person to delegate any given task to? It was something that I had to learn in a hurry and hadn’t thought deeply about prior.
Gerima: The script is not perfect in the sense of three-act Hollywood, but the fact of not having a massive million dollar production machine behind you, going according to this perfected script, really gives you the freedom to alter on the fly, as you were doing, and find the story as you go, because even your intention and desires kind of change on the fly, too. What escape valves and things were in the script, or in your process, that allowed you to pivot or audible on the fly?
Asili: Because of my experience as an experimental maker, I was like, “I’m not going to cheat and write an experimental script where it’s some diagrams and something like that. It’s going to be a script, proper.” I wrote it out in three act structure and laid the film out as it should exist as a conventional film. Then I pulled everything I didn’t want out and left it like that for a while, so there are gaps. It’s like, OK, the plot point on page 15 still has to happen on page 15, but the three pages that lead up to it, that’s boring. Four pages after that is boring. So, I was trying to come up with a way where, so long as I landed in certain places periodically, I could free myself up, building in openness, not predetermining what’s going to go in that gap. When I was writing dialogue, I’m not a writer in the sense that I am approaching writing a script because I think I have some snappy dialogue everybody needs to hear. I should say that I am not a big believer in words, I’m a believer in actions, and I think words and actions are often contradictory. So, when I’m writing a script, it’s like, what do I need them to be talking about that is revealing about them in some way? I’m not so much worried about the specific words. It’s like, what is the energy of that scene?
For instance, we shot the beginning of the film on the last day of the shoot. I’m not going to go too into details of this, but some of the most important people acting in the film, of those four days, could only be there for two of them. So, I ended up having to shoot many scenes on the last day. When I sat down and looked at the shooting script I said, “There’s no way. It’s an impossibility that I’m going to be able to shoot the beginning the way that I wanted.” So, I’m able to look at that script, read all the dialogue and be like, “Oh, I can have this person do boom, boom, boom and it’ll be just the same.” The beginning of the film, in some ways, was like shorthand for what I had already written on the page, a paraphrasing of the script. We’ll just do the essence, because I don’t have time and money to do all of the frills and really flesh that out. And again, these are the things people have no idea about when you’re watching a movie. Let’s say I wanted the grandmother to die at the beginning of the film and wanted that emotional resonance to carry through. I didn’t have the money to do that, so grandma can’t appear. You find other ways. But I think writing in a way that the specificity of the word isn’t always that important allows for, like you say, the audible, where it’s like, “I don’t have the time, so and so’s train came in late, what can I do?” In moments like that, I’m glad I studied film so formally, because you can think through the visual way of doing that and the montage structure of it in a way I don’t think trained filmmakers always have immediate access to.
Gerima: Hell yeah. I want to tell you something real quick. When I was in pre-production on Residue, I was trying to schedule out before a lot of people got there, going by the traditional how-many-pages-per-day kind of shit, like five pages a day or something. I don’t know what number I was using. But my dad was just like, “Why the hell? Who cares about how many pages you shoot in a day?” And I was like, “Well, how else do I do it?” He was trying to say something, I wasn’t getting it. It came down to this one moment when I was looking for some paper and found this calendar from the ’90. It was their shooting schedule for Sankofa. Somebody had written the days in Sharpie.
Gerima: I saw that they were not going by page count or anything—they were going by, how many scenes can we fit into these days? I tell you, when I saw five to eight to 10 scenes a day, that’s when it clicked, where I was just like, “Oh shit.” You know what I’m saying? It’s really telling you to find the the bare essence of what you need most out of every scene and get that. The schedule becomes a filter, allowing you to filter out the bullshit and all the things aren’t absolutely necessary.
Asili: Absolutely. It’s kind of like you’re editing while you’re shooting, right? Sometimes you just have to do that. Maybe a perfect script exists in the final edit the way that it exists on the page, but chances are you’re cutting things out on the backend, it’s like not everything you wrote. The real magic is, if one is able to do this in real time, being like “Oh, we’re not going to end up using that bit anyway.” But I think most people want as much material to work with on the backend as possible, so it’s about getting as much coverage as possible. But if you’re able to kind of get that essence in there, and there’s something there, then it’s like, all right, that seems to be working. And that would lead to a lot of rewrites.
I’ll give another example. One of the scenes that ended up taking the most time was the scene where the young woman is making juice. I asked her not to show a lot of emotion. The first take she comes in, she’s whistling and singing. And I’m like, no, no, no, no. Just little tiny things. The juicer would stop and I’m like, “I thought this would take 10 minutes tops.” One take, she makes the juice wrong. We’re spending an hour shooting the juice scene. And then you have some dense dialogue that’s all emotional—one take, done, right? And it’s like, this is just how it’s working. I wouldn’t know, but I would suspect a lot of directors wouldn’t have faith in that, like, “Oh, I better do that two or three more times just to be sure.” But I didn’t have that. I was like, “You know what? That seemed pretty good,” and not second guessing it. And more times than not, it was fine. I rarely found—and this is a practical thing I learned—when I did do multiple takes, let’s say 10, maybe once the second take was better than the first. There wasn’t any situation where I couldn’t have just gone with the first take. It was definitely more for me than anyone else. By the end of the day, a lot of it was unnecessary.
Gerima: We were about to go into the first day of shooting and were staying at my parents’ house. My dad called us into his room. He’d been watching us through pre-production quietly, off to the side. That’s kind of his thing. But on this day, he pulled us to be like, “Yo, it’s not looking good.” [Laughs] “But it’s cool. It’s good that you don’t have millions of dollars and a lot of time to shoot, because ultimately the urgency of the production will find its way into the finished product.” Through that, the conclusion is, allow the imperfections, which really is the summation of everything you’ve been talking about: you set the goal you want to go for, and all the methods, reasons, circumstances and resources basically come down to you either get it done or you don’t. That’s my favorite part of your film, and my favorite part of my film: the things that add the texture, the scratchiness, the grittiness. And a lot of times, the stage in which you choose to allow those things ultimately is in the edit anyway. So, talk about post. What was that like? Did you edit this?
Asili: Oh yeah. Editing is much like shooting and writing, it’s all one thing for me. As a filmmaker, where I kind of rest my hat is like, this is what I do. I shoot, I edit, I do all of this. It’s not a labor thing, like I’m outworking anybody. It’s organic. I couldn’t really tell anybody how to edit my films. It’s like shaman work—I have to go into this certain spiritual place and be open to what the edit presents to me, letting it unfold, almost trying not to involve myself in something that’s happening through me, because it’s connected to a physiological thing. When you cut, it’s very much connected to the nervous system, but that’s true of most Black art. There’s a direct relationship to the nervous system and how art functions, which is why we improvise, because your nervous system’s going to function different under different circumstances. It’s like, I feel good today, I’m going to play with more energy. I feel like shit, you’re going to hear the sad version. This is what we do, and that’s what’s happening at the editing table as well. One of my big influences is Sun Ra, and the thing about Sun Ra, beyond the general Afro-Futurist stuff people are into, was this way of composing and arranging, where he would have space for chaos and randomness and trying to not control that. You can’t control it, but to have it be your companion in a work that might take you places you might not go otherwise is really key.
With a film, if it’s too controlled, it becomes uninteresting to most people after a certain point. There has to be something mysterious about it. Not having a pre-determined way to edit opens up that possibility. I’m always telling myself I don’t have to 100 percent understand everything that I’m doing, it just has to feel right. I can let the nervous system take over and not go to this intellectual place all the time. When I look at my edits of films years later, I’m seeing something I never even realized I was doing at the time, and that’s always going to be the case. It’s a process of allowing the unintentional, to work with it as an ally, because the unintentional might come and do something bad to you, if you don’t—like, “You’re not going to let me say something in this film? I’m going to steer you down the wrong path and you’re saying subliminal things to people that are offensive.” But if you let that little bit of chaos have a voice, they’re going to teach you something about it.
Gerima: I love the way you put that. It gets to the point where, especially with a long sustained course of editing for a feature film, you just kind of show up. That’s how I felt at a certain point. I was just showing up and asking the film, “How are you going to give to me today? What gifts do you have?” and finding the film within the footage.
Asili: Right, that’s well said. That was my first feature, so the hard part was doing it for such sustained windows of time. I can tell just by the way you’re talking you know exactly what I’m talking about: those hours of watching the same thing over and over, waiting for it to tell you what to do. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I couldn’t imagine someone else editing this particular film. I mean, I’m working on some new stuff I could maybe see somebody editing, because it’s more pre-determined in some ways, but the kind of work I’m doing with The Inheritance is like, “I’ve got to edit that.”
Gerima: I feel like young filmmakers especially, or Black filmmakers, in imitation of other filmmakers they see, are like, “I need an editor,” without even trying or whatever. And I feel like they’re giving away almost the best thing the film has to offer you, that experience of editing the film. As a director who wrote the project, you’re sitting with it for years before you even put pen to paper, then you’re sitting with it for another year through production, all the chaos and experiences. It’s like when you make soup, the best flavor is at the bottom of the soup after everything has drizzled down. Handing it to an editor, you’re kind of tossing that shit out the window when it’s the best part, you know what I’m saying? When you accidentally hit that button and the thing flips and you see two images next to each other that otherwise wouldn’t have been, that another editor without that experience wouldn’t catch, you are bringing your whole self to this. Personal projects especially like this, it’s almost neglectful of the potential of the film.
Asili: I would say particularly for young makers, this is what you should be doing. Because even if in the end you don’t like it and it’s something you want to later delegate to someone else, they’re editing the way you want. I remember being a film student and taking my first few courses in film school, that’s the first thing they tell you: pick one job and delegate all the other tasks. And I was finding myself working with people who knew more about the technology than me, but weren’t making the edit I wanted. And I was at their mercy because I couldn’t fix it, I couldn’t change it. When you’re working, you want people to work for you. So, if I am going to hire an editor, I need to know what my editing voice is, so that I can tell them this is what I’m looking for, as opposed to, “Well, let’s see what you do.” For me, the same with photography. I don’t need to shoot, because I know what my style is, and I could just tell someone what I want. But it’s another young filmmaker mistake: You hire some big time or very experienced DP, and they bring all of that to your first project and it looks like 10 other movies, because they’re just doing what they do and you don’t know how to direct them. So, it’s important, even if there’s a lot of mistakes, to at least figure out what you can and can’t do, what does and doesn’t work. That doesn’t have to happen in film school. Just make some movies and let these things happen.
Gerima: You can’t really afford to over-specialize, to say, “I only write, I only direct,” unless you’ve got some million dollar inheritance or whatever. But like you were saying: You shoot, you wrote, you direct, you edit. Even if you don’t do all those things in one project, you know how to better collaborate with people who do those things on that project. And I feel like you should strive really to keep any aspect of the filmmaking process from being opaque to you.
Asili: And if for no other reason, just talking money: How many filmmakers do we know that they got the thing in the can and it’s just sitting there because they don’t have an editor? It’s one of those classic lines: just edit it. How hard can it be? But it’s a mentality thing, where it’s like, “I’m not an editor,” or “I got the script, I just need to get the DP,” but they need X number of dollars. And it’s like, just shoot it. There comes a time where the stakes are maybe very high and you can’t make those moves, but most of us never get to that point. So, until that moment, get out there and get busy. Don’t worry about the production value and all of that. It will all come in time, you know?