“Our #TellEveryone Hashtag is About Celebrating the Power of Black Art”: Monkeypaw CEO and Co-writer Win Rosenfeld and Director of Social Impact Keisha Senter on Candyman
Although the COVID-19 pandemic delayed its release for over one year, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is finally in theaters and already the subject of intense debate. The film, a sequel to the 1992 original directed by Bernard Rose and starring Tony Todd and Virgina Madsen, certainly invites difficult discussions to be had, and that’s before you even factor in its relation to the brutal events of 2020 that unfolded after the movie wrapped production. A tragedy told on a grand, horrific scale, this new spin on Candyman is as American as apple pie.
Set decades after the events of the original, Candyman brings us back to Chicago, specifically the area that once housed the Cabrini-Green public housing projects, now gentrified and decked out in fancy, overpriced high-rises. Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a starving artist who, thanks to his gallery director girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), is less than starving but struggling for inspiration. After being made aware of the bizarre events of Cabrini-Green in 1992, Anthony visits the dilapidated land that society abandoned, left to exist as a relic only visited by the evening sounds of intrusive police sirens.
Upon his visit, Anthony is stung by a bee, and, after a brief encounter with a laundryman (Colman Domingo, having quite a summer between this and his wild turn in Janicza Bravo’s Zola), learns of the Candyman legend. Anthony then gets to work on a series of paintings that reflect this mythic figure and his legacy as a figure for Black loss of life and subsequent vengeance. As Anthony’s artistic popularity grows (and his physical health declines), so too does the body count of folks closest to him, proving that the legend of Candyman is forever present.
As I finished viewing the film, I was struck by a piece of on-screen text in the closing credits directing me to a Social Impact campaign built for the film. Designed to promote racial healing and real-world context for the tragedies cited in the movie, the site’s thorough breakdown (and downloadable syllabus) struck me as unique for a studio-made horror production. I reached out to the team at Monkeypaw Productions (the company founded by Academy Award winner Jordan Peele in 2012) to inquire about the origins of this campaign. Speaking with CEO and President (and Candyman co-writer), Win Rosenfeld, and Director of Social Impact, Keisha Senter, our discussion below dives into the origins of the project and how the conversation around the film has continued to deepen since the racial reckoning of the past 16 months.
Filmmaker: How did this iteration of Candyman originate at Monkeypaw? Was your team always looking for a way to take on the franchise?
Rosenfeld: To be honest, I remember Jordan [Peele] talking about the project for what feels like forever, but at least for the last 10 years. The original Candyman scared the crap out of us in a pretty fundamental way when it was released in 1992, Jordan especially. What hit home back then was the fact that we weren’t accustomed to having African-American representation on screen in a horror film, at least not in that particular way. Tony Todd’s performance captured something regal and elegant, far removed from being the “first character to get killed at a fraternity party.”
Jordan was always considering potential ways to have the film remade in an exciting, socially relevant way. We thought, “What are the things we love about the original film and what are the elements that are admittedly problematic? What are the elements that need to be addressed and reclaimed?” We knew we wanted to explore that if we could.
Filmmaker: Did someone craft a treatment, get it greenlit, and then have the film evolve through subsequent drafts?
Rosenfeld: We first verbally pitched a version of the story to Jonathan Glickman, who was head of MGM [the studio that held the rights] at the time. He loved the pitch and has continued to be a champion of the project. Once the pitch was [approved], we went into writing mode, although perhaps slower than we had hoped. Jordan was busy writing the screenplay for his second feature, Us, and we had several television projects coming out in close proximity to one another. But the film originated with that verbal pitch we gave to Jonathan and from there we committed to working on the script.
Filmmaker: How did you come to the decision to hire Nia DaCosta as director? Had you seen her previous film, Little Woods, or her episodes of the Netflix series, Top Boy? What were you looking for in potential candidates?
Rosenfeld: We knew what we didn’t want, and that was someone known for being a horror director. Hiring someone focused solely on jump scares and terror, while obviously important to a horror movie, just wouldn’t work with the soul of this Candyman. When we saw Little Woods, we were moved by Nia’s ability to build out character-relationships in an equally dynamic and grounded way. I know that probably sounds counterintuitive, right? To look at a film like Little Woods as a comp for Candyman—but to us, her film was exactly what Candyman needed. We enjoyed the episodes of Top Boy she directed as well.
Filmmaker: And if I’m not mistaken, her editor on Little Woods and Top Boy is also the editor of Candyman.
Rosenfeld: That’s correct, Catrin Hedström.
Filmmaker: You don’t always see filmmakers given the opportunity to bring on former collaborators as they take on larger studio projects.
Rosenfeld: That’s very true. Nia felt strongly about Catrin and, once we met and began working with her, it was obvious why. A director and an editor require a level of trust and a willingness to go back-and-forth with each other, and that’s at the heart of Catrin and Nia’s process [they are currently working together again on The Marvels, due out in 2022].
Filmmaker: As you’re both an executive at Monkeypaw and a co-writer on this project, were you visiting the set often? Do you enjoy the production experience?
Rosenfeld: I do, and I enjoyed being on the Candyman set and being immersed in the day-to-day with the film’s other producer, [Monkeypaw’s creative director] Ian Cooper. As Monkeypaw oversees a number of television shows and films, I’m often visiting many sets when needed, and Nia’s felt like everyone was well taken care of and the director was locked into her specific vision. That was a delight for me and I was honored to hang out when I could and immerse myself in Chicago and the city’s residents.
Filmmaker: So much of this film (and the Candyman franchise as a whole) is steeped in a specific visual language that’s reliant on mirroring and reflections in shadows. Of course that’s written into the screenplay, but at a certain point, I’m assuming that’s less on the page than within the frame on that day’s shoot. After you’ve finished the script, at what point do you hand it off and let the director and her cinematographer attempt to enhance those visual specifics? How much is on the page and how much is created by the production team?
Rosenfeld: That’s what I love as a writer, the idea that these two teams are working together. Yes, a lot of the visuals you mentioned are certainly written and detailed in the screenplay itself, but when you’re scouting locations and meeting with cinematographers and putting together storyboards, elements undoubtedly change and evolve. Our locations certainly changed things, but I’m very happy with how the DP, John Guleserian, and Nia found a visual elegance that enhanced what we wrote.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that there were aspects of Candyman (1992) that would have to be altered or updated for a present day take on the material. Some of the decisions you’ve made in this new film are very clear, especially as it pertains to issues of rapid gentrification. Were those the most essential thematic changes? Were there others?
Rosenfeld: There were. The original film is, in part, about a white woman who, as an academic, is experiencing the projects at Cabrini-Green in a very removed way. She’s an outsider, a stranger in a strange land. For our take on the material, we wanted to recapture that notion while simultaneously inverting it. Our film follows a new character, Anthony, returning to Cabrini-Green and seeing the neighborhood for what it is now and how foreign it has become, even to him. We wanted to tie together the relationship between gentrification and Anthony’s burgeoning recognition as an artist, all while remembering the very real history of Cabrini-Green. There was a lot to say there—and yes, we’re also addressing rapid gentrification, we’re addressing racism, how we interact with police, how we treat artists and, particularly, how we treat artists of color.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the original film relying on the POV of a white female outsider. In what ways did you find it important to have people of color be the viewer’s POV in this new take on the material? If memory serves, most of the Candyman’s victims in your film are Caucasian, a specific choice that makes a distinct point. Were you cognizant of that racial shift in the writing stage?
Rosenfeld: 100%. We felt that this wasn’t a story that was best told through a white person’s point of view. That’s, in part, due to us needing to be scared of and empathetic toward Candyman and to understand who he is. Without giving away spoilers, Candyman’s identity in our film is crucial to what the [legacy] of Candyman is and it was important for the representative of the audience to line up with that.
Filmmaker: Keisha, you joined Monkeypaw earlier this year. Although Candyman had concluded post-production by then, I’m curious as to how your role on the film took shape over these last few months.
Senter: You’re right that Candyman was essentially finished by the time I came on board, but when I saw the film, I was struck by how rich it was and, of course, how much things in society had changed since the pandemic began. The film’s first trailer was released in February of 2020 and by March, life had drastically begun to shift. Of course, many dynamics were involved in this (especially within the United States), but each had their own ripple effect. The Monkeypaw team then began a conversation, internally, of how this film, which touches on mental health and gentrification and the work of Black artists, could “wrap our arms” around our potential audience and help them dig deeper into the text. We agreed to craft an impact campaign to work in tandem with the film and brainstormed what that would look like.
I was interested in interactive ways to start up a conversation, especially as it pertains to what the film’s three lead characters (Anthony, Brianna and William) have experienced regarding intergenerational trauma. But I was also curious as to how we could celebrate Black creativity and the ways in which viewers could come out of this trauma. I wanted conversations that focused its attention on the act of healing, whether that was by connecting viewers with organizations and individuals who work with communities struggling with issues touched on in the film or by creating pathways to wellness, community development, justice initiatives and fellow artists. While the film was shot in 2019, there are many elements that run parallel to where we are as a country right now. My goal was to create an impact campaign that gives our audience the tools to continue that conversation after they leave the theater.
It’s also important to note that our #TellEveryone hashtag is about celebrating the power of Black art and the ways in which art creates pathways to healing. That’s our focus, and while we started with Candyman, it’s something that we’re looking at across all of our film and television properties, and internally within the company as well.
Filmmaker: Is that a process that also includes the filmmaker? While an impact campaign is different from a marketing campaign, of course, it’s still very much in conversation with how a film interacts with its potential audience. How does one complement the other?
Senter: It’s very much integrated. As we spoke with Nia about what we were planning, we were all engaged in what the impact campaign would look like. We then worked with our multicultural teams at Monkeypaw and our partners at Universal to enhance what we were building.
First and foremost, we have to entertain, right? That’s why we go to the movies, to be entertained. But we also want to educate in some way, and quite frankly, it’s our job to find ways to educate in entertaining, creative ways. Our recent roundtable discussion hosted by Colman Domingo titled “The Impact of Black Horror” is a form of entertainment that educates. It begins in a very fun way, by having each of the panelists say “Candyman” straight to the camera. That playfully pulls the viewer in before the panelists break down the issues that Black horror (and specifically Candyman) dive into. We view their discussion as an opportunity for healing and that’s the blueprint for our impact campaign.
We’re also working with student-artists across the country at six HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] who are creating murals on their respective campuses that are inspired by the film. There’s an element that’s educational and an element that’s entertaining to that, right? As a student, you may come across the mural as you return to campus for the fall semester, and hopefully you’re engaged and prompted not just to go see our film but to learn about the social impact campaign, visit our resources page, read our shared curriculum, learn more about the history of Cabrini-Green, the history of the Black artists referenced and featured in the film, etc. Each of our efforts are integrated with, and run parallel to, the film itself. We want to center the voices in the film as well as the voices of those behind the camera, for all kinds of creative people of color. That’s something our department is constantly working to grow.
Filmmaker: The shadow puppetry in the film is incredibly striking and inspired, resembling the work of artist Kara Walker. By the conclusion of the film, that puppetry evokes the brutal imagery of some very real, horrible events throughout American history (the deaths of James Byrd, Emmett Till, and George Stinney are three that instantly came to mind as the puppetry develops in the end credits). How do you locate that line between the real violence and racial trauma inherent in America’s past and present with the narrative of your film? Is there a fine line where you found the connection too explicit and needed to pull back?
Rosenfeld: Absolutely, and the inclusion of the shadow puppetry was always going to be as a way to speak to those very real [horrors]. Anthony’s journey in the film is in connection to his work as a fine artist, work that explores themes of violent trauma and Blackness. That work is the nexus of the film, and we viewed the shadow puppetry as an extension of that, a way to hold a lantern over the notion that we’re telling viewers a story. Our Candyman is a story about stories, and as soon as we hear about another one of these tragic but extremely common violent events in the United States, they become as much a reflection of the person who’s listening to the story as what the story is itself.
While the shadow puppetry emphasizes the mythic quality of these traumatic stories, we never wanted to achieve that via inundating audiences with explicit images of violence against Black bodies. We didn’t want to emphasize fear by showing the viewer potentially damaging imagery. The puppetry allowed us to make our point more hauntingly, in a way attuned to how the film explores these issues.
Filmmaker: Keisha, although you joined Monkeypaw when Candyman concluded production, do your plans on future projects involve your team getting involved in development and pre-production stages?
Senter: They do! Our plan is to be involved in conversations at the beginning stages of potential projects. The stories Monkeypaw wants to tell (and how it wants to tell them) are often determined by how the company wants to reflect and impact culture. That might translate to my working alongside our development team or something else, but it’s all centered around a project’s potential impact and how my team can integrate and expand upon it. We want to be at the lifecycle of the film, ahead of a project, to come up with ways to build on it. When we’re reading scripts, I’m already thinking of several organizations we might want to reach out to and work with when the film gets released. We get to build all of that out and it’s fun for me. It’s important to get involved in that process early in a film’s beginning stages, so that you and the rest of your team can build the conversation around the film together.
Filmmaker: Of course, quite a bit of the conversation centered around racial trauma and police brutality has grown in ways you couldn’t have anticipated since the film was made. Your potential audience’s views and ways of speaking about these issues have grown as well. How does it feel, as a creative on the project, to be releasing this film now, where we’re at somewhat of a different spot, culturally, than we were before the pandemic began?
Rosenfeld: It’s been a very strange two years. This movie was made before the George Floyd tragedy, of course, but his tragedy just happened to be the one that captured the public zeitgeist. Stories like George Floyd’s are sadly an everyday occurrence and have been for a very long time. Candyman, then, lives in a world that’s both pre- and post-pandemic. Is there some zeitgeisty resonance to the film? Absolutely, that’s undeniable. How will that impact how people look at our film? I’m just as curious as you are, but we felt like we were telling the oldest story of America, unfortunately, and not necessarily the most contemporary.
However, we don’t believe that art ever exists in a vacuum, and if people want to think of us as a company that creates social thrillers that create meaningful conversation, then that’s our responsibility. We see it as an opportunity for us to deepen conversations and invite more people into them and have people contribute. Creating social impact campaigns around our projects is an opportunity for us to address some of these more important issues.
Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned telling stories directed by people behind the camera who look like the characters in front of it. That’s certainly true of your version of Candyman and I imagine it will hold true for your upcoming take on The People Under the Stairs, a film that originated with Wes Craven in 1991. Is that also true of all Monkeypaw productions moving forward?
Rosenfeld: 100%. You will see that with our version of The People Under the Stairs and also on another project we’re making now with Issa Rae, a film titled Sinkhole. We think that authenticity of point-of-view is absolutely crucial for us and for the filmmakers who are hired to tell these stories.