Go backBack to selection

Animal Collective, David Lynch and the Marines: Elegance Bratton on The Inspection

Jeremy Pope and Raúl Castillo in The Inspection

While it’s been 35 years since the release of Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick’s U.S. Marines drama that featured R. Lee Ermey showering young male recruits with derogatory four-letter words, numerous films have sought to further emphasize the dehumanizing nature of military training bootcamps. At first glance, it might appear that The Inspection, writer-director Elegance Bratton’s narrative feature debut, fits comfortably within those expectations. Set in the early 2000s, the film opens as Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) has been kicked out of his mother’s (Gabrielle Union) apartment for being gay and finds himself at a homeless shelter in New Jersey. Ostensibly looking for a better life, French enlists in the U.S. Marines, where he is subsequently berated by his superiors (Raúl Castillo, Bokeem Woodbine) and peers alike. Then, something truly unique and subtly complex occurs: as French perseveres through the course of his training (often up against the physical harassment and homophobic slurs uttered by his colleagues), The Inspection shows how these grunts ultimately come to accept their new recruit, offering him a community and sense of worth that he will never receive from his mother back home. It’s a surprising pivot, one that could only have been inspired by real life experience—indeed, it is.  

The Inspection had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September before arriving stateside as the New York Film Festival’s Closing Night film. Set to open in theaters this Friday courtesy of A24, I spoke with Bratton about his own military background, his personal experience with homelessness and making his feature documentary, Pier Kids.

Filmmaker: You grew up in New Jersey but close to New York, is that right?

Bratton: Yeah, I was born in Jersey City and grew up all over the state. My mother had me when she was 16, so we moved often. I’ve been in Bayonne, East Orange, Phillipsburg—which was a really formative time for me as I was there from third to eighth grade—then back to Jersey City and, finally, Rahway. Mother worked at various prisons in Phillipsburg and Rahway, so we were always living relatively close to where she worked. I lived in more of New Jersey too, like Trenton when I was homeless, and then all over Philly. But Jersey is where I’m from and where I grew up.

Filmmaker: At what point did you become homeless? Were you still in New Jersey at that time?

Bratton: I was living in Rahway at the time, as that’s where our apartment was, but began being kicked out of the house by my mother when I was 16. This would continue until I was 18 when I got into college and left for good. The first time I was kicked out of the house was for three days, maybe a week or two before or after my birthday. My mother packed all of my stuff in trash bags and I had 20 bucks on me. I went over to the nearby train station. That’s what I grew up doing, thinking that if you don’t have any money or anywhere to go, you get on the train, go to New York and do something for free. I would go to the train station because it was warm, and the gays come out when it gets warm [laughs]. I remember being on the platform [that night] and seeing three Black gay men and knowing they were gay because they were so flamboyant. I didn’t know you could be that gay in public. It was a godsend, I just felt like it was a sign. These men led me to Christopher Street in the West Village. When it’s the summertime and you’re cute, gay, Black and looking to have fun, that’s where you go. All of the things that would come to define my life, at least as a single gay man, began to happen. You’re fresh meat, so all the guys are interested in you. I got to flirt and do all that stuff for the first time. While it was painful how I landed there, it was wonderful once [I got there].

Filmmaker: At what age did you enter the Marine Corps? 

Bratton: That came later, when I was 25. Prior to that, I had always tried to be some form of an artist. When I first left home, I thought I was going to be a professional poet, as I had been fascinated with Arthur Rimbaud and wanted to be like him. Then I learned about The Velvet Underground, and wanted to be like both Rimbaud and Lou Reed. I ran poetry nights and even self-published a poetry book that I stayed up all night typing 15 copies of before we had laptops. I’m sure people still have them somewhere, and they’re probably a jumbled mess. I had a bit of a creative background, but didn’t know how to pursue it. I was Black, gay and in a perilous living situation. Nothing was really connecting. I had moments of real light but, for the most part, I found myself drifting rather than committing to anything. 

The other thing I would do was steal art books with my friend. We stole everything back then. We stole groceries, toiletries, hygiene products, everything. But art books had a really high resell value, and to steal them was relatively low risk. In most instances, if you saw a Black guy in a bookstore back then, it was like, “He has no reason to be there, he’s not going to steal a book. Since when do Black people steal books?” But I stole all of the art books. I found myself in a shelter in 2005, and would call my mom asking, “Ma, can I come back home?” She was like, “You know what, why don’t you join the military? Because you can’t be gay in my house.” I took that as her basically saying, “Go get blown up. I’d rather my son be blown to bits than be gay in my house.” I, of course, protested against it. But the next morning when I was in the shelter looking around, I saw all of these Black men who had been there for many, many years. I had to ask myself if that was my future. 

The next morning, a Marine Corp recruiter—he was a Latino guy—approached me and administered a test that I scored high on. He was like, “Look, you’re Black. Most times we would just make you a mechanic or a cook.” He proceeded to mark off what he thought were the top jobs in the Marine Corps. The first job was intelligence. Look, I’m nobody’s snitch, so I couldn’t do that. The second job was journalism, but I’m too biased to be a good journalist. The third job was filmmaking, and he had a photo that was shot with a telephoto lens of a guy hanging upside down from a helicopter. It looked pretty cool. Since I had previously stolen the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and read it a few times in the process of stealing and reselling it, I kind of had a fantasy about becoming a filmmaker. So, when the recruiter asked if I had ever thought of becoming one, I said, “Yes.” And that’s how it all started. I’ll never forget when I got to my duty station, the General called me up to his office. I thought I was in trouble, but it turned out that he wanted notes on a script he was writing for his retirement, and that’s what I wound up shooting in the Marines. I was [tasked] with shooting retirement ceremonies and actuality films, like how you put weapons together and put them apart. 

Filmmaker: Once you concluded your time with the Marines, you used the money you had saved to purchase a Sony PD150, right? Had you become familiar with that camera in the military? Were you pretty well versed in filmmaking at that point?

Bratton: Again, I had been stealing books. When I used to steal, I don’t mean five or 10 books, I mean hundreds at a time. This was in the early 2000s, when David Lynch’s [Inland Empire] came out, and I had read in a book that Lynch had used that camera on the film. When I got to the Marine Corps and received that camera, I was like, “Oh, what a coincidence, this is the same kind.” I had been stationed in Hawaii, making films for the Marines [as a combat filmmaker] before then having an opportunity to return to New York. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to work as an artist in the Marines anymore. But I could become a military police officer, and that meant that I could start an art career on my own. That’s how I took it at least, that I didn’t have to do any military work anymore. My mother called and asked, “Oh, you’re in town now? You think you’re some sort of artist, some filmmaker or whatever? Then why don’t you go buy a camera and shoot your little sister’s elementary school graduation?” So, that’s what I did. But when I arrived at the graduation, no one even knew that my mother had had a son. My sister’s teachers didn’t know, her friends didn’t know—no one knew that my mother had kicked me out of the house and that I had spent all this time trying to right the ship. I was hurt, and that’s when I said to myself, “You know what? I’m going to become a filmmaker and my mother is not going to ignore me.” 

While I’m in love with the art form, the films that I make come from a very intentional, purposed and determined place. They’re a way to objectify my resilience of having gone through all of these things. While I love movies and feel that I know cinema, it’s the emotional [aspect] that drives me more so than that knowledge. Yet I draw on that knowledge to express the emotional aspect.

The Marines didn’t necessarily teach me how to make movies, as the film work there was more related to historical documentation, but I definitely learned what I was interested in. When I was back in New York and working at a [military] recruiting station, my job was basically to check people’s IDs. One day, a Marine walked in [who I knew] and he didn’t have his normal ID, he had a Columbia University one. He and I didn’t get along too well and were always picking at each other. So, I was like, “How’d you get this?” He told me that he went to Columbia. I told him, “Oh, they wouldn’t let anyone as stupid as you into that school,” and he proved to me that he did in fact go to Columbia. I thought, “Well, if he can go to Columbia, I know I can go to Columbia too.” So, I applied and got in. [Bratton attended the University’s School of General Studies, majoring in African-American Studies.] That’s when Pier Kids started, as it was a culture shock for me to be around people who had such privilege and legacy. I had tried to go to college many times before and had always failed out. Now I felt like, “OK, I need to figure out what my legacy is. What is it that makes people belong here?” I realized that, for me, it was about everything that I had been through to get there. Nobody else at that school had been through anything like that, and this was what I was going to root myself in. Instead of being ashamed of it, I was going to lean into it. It’s all I have, it’s my life. 

Simultaneously, I was asking myself questions about home. I had an assignment for a sociology class once, “Evaluation of Evidence.” They were like, “We want you to go and find living, breathing social networks and provide an ethnography.” I immediately went to the [Christopher Street] pier without even having to think about it. It wasn’t until maybe 80 interviews in that I realized, “Oh wait, this is my home. This is my social network. This is where I come from.” I had also been taking classes related to anthropology and film, seeing all kinds of movies in the process of getting that core curriculum down, and [my relationship to the pier] began to feel like a cinematic proposition. Fortunately, due to my mother wanting me to film that elementary school graduation, I now had a camera. That’s how I began shooting Pier Kids.

Filmmaker: Were you considering being a documentary filmmaker at that point? Or were there certain screenplay ideas you had on the back burner for a potential narrative project? Had you worked with actors before? What was the timeline like from Pier Kids to The Inspection?

Bratton: Pier Kids led me to NYU. By that point, I had shot approximately 400 hours of footage. While I had read up on film theory, I didn’t really understand what a closeup or a jump cut or an establishing shot were supposed to do. I didn’t know about the things you’re supposed to do with your footage in order to turn them into a film. I had a producer on Pier Kids at the time who felt confident that he [could get accepted to] Tisch grad film with the movie. I thought, “Wow, if he thinks he’s a shoe-in with this film, maybe I have a chance to go, too.” I applied, was accepted and began making narrative shorts. I mean, we made all sorts of films at Tisch. But what taught me to think about my documentary as a film were, funnily enough, the shorts we were making. That’s when it really connected for me, the language of shots and the importance of pacing and editing. There was something about that process that was really illuminating. Then I made my first narrative short, Walk for Me. Well, I actually made a few films before Walk For Me, but that was the first film that I released on the festival circuit. That’s how I began. 

Mind you, Walk for Me was an interesting project, because I primarily cast non-actors. The funny thing is that a lot of those actresses, like Dominique Jackson (who plays Elektra on the FX series, Pose) was in Walk for Me, and it was the first film she’d ever done. Ava Grey, who did so well in Atlanta this season, was also in the film. Nonetheless, they were not professional actors at the time. They were just people who were in my movie at this ballroom scene. The film is about a girl who is transitioning, and when her secret gets discovered, her biological mother confronts her chosen mother at a ball. There’s even a scene in it that looks very much like the last scene of The Inspection. I personally think that filmmakers are always making the same story over and over again. But I made Walk for Me and it played at a lot of festivals, which was great because that opened up the door for me to make my first television series, My House, which was a documentary series that sold to Viceland. I started using real people to tell fictional stories, and The Inspection was the first time I’ve used professional actors to tell a real story, my story. 

Filmmaker: Did Gamechanger Films and CEO Effie Brown come aboard the project relatively early during pre-production?

Bratton: I wrote the first draft of The Inspection back in 2017, after we sold My House to Viceland. I finally had a little bit of money, but I was still in my third year of film school, so I skipped a bunch of classes to write three scripts. My life had never before been so stable, so I figured this was the time to do it. In addition to The Inspection, I wrote the feature-length version of Walk for Me and another script called Jazz Hands, which is basically New Jack City meets Pretty Woman but instead of crack cocaine, it’s his dick that the main character realizes will take him out of the ghetto. I went to my life partner and my love, Chester Algernal Gordon (who is also the producer of The Inspection), with these scripts and asked which one I should try to make. We were living in this small, ground floor apartment in Harlem at the time, with a horrible couch that our cat had ruined and ripped to shreds. Chester was like, “Your job as a filmmaker is to take the audience to places they could never go unless you bring them there. In order to break through, it has to be personal for you, so if you can do The Inspection…”

I debated it a bit, but I always listen to my bae because I love Chester and I’m committed to him. I also had a working relationship with an executive at A24—we were in undergrad together—and when I was beginning grad film, he was working his way up and building his career into the position that he now has at A24. I would send him drafts of the script over the years, and he would provide me with notes and feedback. I had applied to all of the lab programs—the Sundance Labs, etc.—and got rejected by all of them. I eventually said, “I’m not doing this anymore. Most of the movies that play festivals are not from these labs, so I’m not going to limit myself into thinking that the only way I can make this movie is if I get into some directing or screenwriting lab.”  Chester, thank God, tried a few more times, even applying to the Tribeca All Access Lab, which I got into. I took between 60 to 70 pitch meetings in that lab, but the project ultimately didn’t receive any bites. Nonetheless, the experience helped introduce us to the New York film industry and helped me hone my pitch. Chester then applied and was accepted into Film Independent’s Producing Lab, and that opened the door to us to getting into their Fast Track Lab in 2019, where we pitched the movie. 

Regarding Gamechanger, we actually first met Effie in 2018 at the final edition of the L.A. Film Festival, where she was being honored at their gala. We were flown out by some friends at Roadside Attractions whom we had previously met at another event. Back then, whenever I went to a screening, I would pitch someone. If I liked the movie, I would pitch the producer of the film. I was like, “If I’m not getting into the Sundance Lab, then I’m going to go to these premiers and pitch to everybody!”

Filmmaker: I think you even met Raúl Castillo at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Bratton: I did, yeah. It’s a hustle! Chester and I went to that Film Independent gala where Effie was being honored, and Chester pitched Effie and took a picture with her, but nothing came beyond that moment. Hey, it’s a complicated business, and sometimes it just takes a minute for things to come together. But going through the Film Independent Lab, we pitched 60 different companies and executives over the course of three days, and that ignited a fire in Hollywood. I was based in New York and trying to work with everyone remotely from there, but going to Film Independent and Outfest and other regional festivals in L.A. made me realize that there was more than one town to make a movie in. We pitched to all of these folks, and it eventually worked. A couple of contacts we made at that pitch event contacted Effie and were like “Hey, you should meet these guys. I think you could make a good movie together.” Simultaneously, the script was being sent out and it got to Jeremy Pope. Jeremy read it and contacted me about wanting to star in it. Now mind you, Jeremy had been on my list of actors to play French from the start. It wasn’t about getting to know him for me, as I knew that it was going to be him in the role. But I didn’t have to scale the mountain to get to him. By that point, I felt that I had the ammunition needed to call up my contact at A24 and let them know, “Listen, I want this to be an A24 movie. I’ve always wanted it to be an A24 movie, but there are now other people who want to make this movie, so you can make it with me and I still want to make it with you. But if you don’t, it’s cool. I’m still going to make it.” Then everything else came together. 

Filmmaker: You’ve spoken about the different plans you had for shooting French’s POV handheld, as opposed to the objective camera placement we’re given when we observe French living in his environment. The camera is more stationary.

Bratton: Yeah, it’s on sticks.

Filmmaker: What kinds of conversations did you have with your cinematographer, Lachlan Milne, about showing French in objective versus subjective ways? And were there other marine films that influenced the look you were hoping to achieve? Of course, Jarhead plays an obvious role in the film, but perhaps there were others.

Bratton: I’ll take the end of your question first. In the writing of this film, I watched every military/Marine Corps movie that existed. This movie is, number one, a pro-troop film. It’s not pro or anti-military, but it is pro-troop. In that regard, I really wanted to consider the condition of the queer soldier, because I definitely wasn’t the only one. I wasn’t even the only one I served with. What’s interesting is that, as I’ve been out of the Marine Corps, as a veteran, so many of my comrades from that time period have since come out to me. The character of French is, then, not just me. That would be a disservice to the character. 

The question of objective versus subjective is ultimately a conversation about the difference between the institution and the individual, right? Institutions can, at times, be intractable. But individual, human connection can be totally unpredictable. There’s no algorithm that can tell you how one human being will react to another when they reveal their soul. That’s why the uniqueness of French’s situation required me to be well-versed in the canon of military films. Did those films influence me? Yes, most of them influenced me, in that I learned what I was not going to do. Some of them are incredible films, like John Huston’s films and David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. That being said, French’s predicament, of being queer within that space, made me realize that I needed to have an understanding of how that space had previously been portrayed in order to understand where I could deviate and find subversions to make my point. Most military films are told from the male gaze, and in that regard, a movie that was very helpful to me in subverting that was Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker was also very influential to me. Outside of my prep on The Inspection, I think Kathryn Bigelow is a titan in general. She’s amazing.

Filmmaker: She also has a Columbia ID…

Bratton: Yeah, she’s got that Columbia ID! “Roar, lion, roar,” baby! Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman was another huge influence on me, as was Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. That film is a constant influence in how I make films, because of a “cinematic dyslexia” that I have [Bratton’s term for not being able to detect the difference between fiction and nonfiction filmmaking]. At times, The Battle of Algiers doesn’t even feel like a narrative film, it feels like an outright documentary.  

So, yes, understanding how and where to place the camera was a major conversation between Lachlan and myself. When I made Pier Kids, I shot that myself. I had a few camera people at different periods of production, but for the most part, everything in that film comes from my holding the camera. I really believe that whoever holds the camera is the one telling their own story, no matter what the story is. That being said, the challenge of working together with Lachlan—who is a white, straight, Australian literally from the other side of the world—was to understand how his holding the camera could still tell my story. We found ways to talk across that difference. We would ask each other, “What is it about this moment that is the tension for you?” The [answer] could only come from my knowledge—not only by having lived it, but by existing in the world with the skin that I have. I told Lachlan, “My goal as a filmmaker is to place the viewer within the skin of the other.” That’s a goal of mine for every movie I’ll make, to really put you there. Lachlan would bring me certain references to review, some that I had already seen but had forgotten about, like James Cameron’s The Abyss, which is a movie I love. The Abyss was a big influence on [The Inspection]. Even if it’s not exclusively a military film, the water sequences were great for us to reference. Terrence Malick’s films were as well. I would be on set, and at times the cinematographer would be like, “Hey, what do we do? We don’t have enough light.” I would say, “Just point the camera at the trees like Terrence Malick. I’m going to go do this other thing over here. You know that Andrei Tarkovsky movie with the wind and the fields? Do that, I’m going to go over here.” It was really fun and illuminating, though. I want to make more movies with Lachlan, for sure.

Filmmaker: What prompted you to bring the Baltimore-based Animal Collective aboard to compose the score? Did they seem like a natural fit?

Bratton: That’s another win for Chester. The beauty of our relationship is that he knows me inside and out. Back in my homeless life, I was very much involved in the indie rock music scene. I’ve met and hung out with The Strokes and saw them perform in Philadelphia. The Delta 72, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Will Oldham, all of them. When I was in the Marines in Hawaii, one of my little side hustles was to be an event photographer and music journalist. I would write about the bands that were coming to Hawaii. I met Bad Brains and wrote an article about them, a bunch of rappers including A Tribe Called Quest. I photographed Flo Rida on stage, etc. 

Chester knows that I’m a fan of indie rock, and at that point in time we had just moved to Baltimore. We left New York during the pandemic, because this shitty apartment was cute when I had short films, and they were flying me out to talk about them at festivals and I was rarely home. Then COVID happened and I was like, “My God, this apartment sucks, bro. I hate this place!” Things kept changing in our careers, and it was one of those things where I thought, “I can pay less in mortgage in Baltimore than I do in rent in New York City. I want to buy a house in a city where where I can make something better, and where it’s helpful to Black folks specifically.” Baltimore felt like the place to do that, and mind you, it’s a really burgeoning film town. John Waters is obviously from Baltimore and is a legend, but then there’s also David Simon, Terence Nance, Radha Blank, Nikyatu Jusu, Bradford Young, all of us. 

I listen to [Animal Collective’s eighth studio album] Merriweather Post Pavilion twice a week, from beginning to end. One day, Chester asked to see if I wanted to reach out them to see if they would collaborate on the score. Eventually I did, and they said yes. Who knew? I felt like the fifth member of Animal Collective, like I was like the fifth Beatle! The idea for the score was that, in the film, French is finding a new religion, as the religion he was previously taught to believe in doesn’t have space for him to be his best self. Incidentally, my musical background began with gospel music, having grown up listening to it in church and all around my house. R&B too, soulful, call-and-response type music. In essence, The Inspection has a spiritual type of score. We mixed different things together, like bongo music and Muslim prayer concepts and Catholic choral orchestrations, to be able to extend the incredible performance that Jeremy gives and to express the contours of this character’s inner life and all of these boys’ inner lives. It comes from the notion that out of many comes one. Each element of the score is inspired by the diversity that’s on screen, and it becomes a container through which this transformation can occur.

Filmmaker: What went into the the creation of the production company, Freedom Principle, that you and Chester co-founded? Is it exclusively to get your own projects off the ground, or are you looking to work with other filmmakers?

Bratton: We’re trying to tell the stories that will change the world and spark a conversation. We believe that changing the world comes from sparking a conversation between left and right. We’re interested in the universal truth of specificity. The Inspection is the company’s second film. Pier Kids was the first, and from here on out, everything I do will involve Freedom Principal in some way—unless it can’t, depending on what it is. Nonetheless, it’s our intention to make sure that all of our work is funneled through our company. We also created it to make opportunities for people who don’t often get a chance to tell stories. We’re interested in people of color and in women, but are also interested in indigenousness. As we begin, our focus will, of course, be on women, people of color and people with disabilities. But as we go forward, everybody will be welcome. If you visit a film set of mine, it looks like the United Nations. There are white people, Black people, Asian people, and it’s our intention to create more and more sets where everybody’s represented and welcome. We want to lift up voices that don’t get a chance to be heard. We’re definitely interested in reading stuff and in people reaching out to us. We do docs, we do narrative films, we do television. We’re interested in all of it. We’re open for business.

© 2022 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham