A Neighborhood Movie Mentored by Spike Lee: Michael Larnell on Cronies
Michael Larnell grew his black-and-white debut feature Cronies through New York University’s Graduate Film program. Executive produced by NYU professor and project advisor Spike Lee, Larnell’s film follows three young men living in St. Louis as they discuss women, drugs, and other salacious topics of interest to innocently pass the time over a twenty-four hour period. A nonchalant, unassuming look at how men externalize their emotions, Cronies’ pleasures derive from its layered, amusing screenplay, documentary-inspired character interviews, and conflicted study of how far one will go to protect their brethren.
As Cronies opens this Friday in IFP’s Screen Forward screening series, I spoke with Larnell about the decision to shoot in black-and-white, the complexities of male friendships, and the communal aspects of St. Louis.
Filmmaker: The setting of St. Louis, MO is extremely important to the film’s around-the-town structure. What made you want to tell this story? Did you find it to be uniquely Missourian?
Larnell: I’m from St. Louis, so I definitely wanted to set my first feature down there. That was the main reason I chose the city. Growing up there, there were never any movies shot in St. Louis. You would never see that world on screen, so I wanted to feature it in the background. As far as the story goes, I really wanted to tell a story about these guys, showing their different lives and how they struggle with friendship. They attempt to hide their love for one another and subsequently struggle with showing it. I thought it was funny to watch, as I remembered [hanging out] with my friends and struggling to show love for one another. It was entertaining and yet serious at the same time.
Filmmaker: How did the NYU Production Lab help shape the film?
Larnell: They came onboard during post-production. I had shot the film by this point, but I didn’t have enough money to finish it. I had started editing the film, I had a good amount done, and NYU knew that I was working on the movie and that their Production Lab was coming up. They had me come in to interview for their first round of projects and mine was one of the ones selected.
Filmmaker: Was it very competitive?
Larnell: I don’t know how competitive it was, but I had been applying to other programs that my fellow filmmakers had been applying to as well. It helps to know who’s working on what projects. If you go to NYU, they know who’s working on what.
Filmmaker: How did Spike Lee come on as an executive producer?
Larnell: In order to get the movie made, I had to take his class! In the third year of the NYU program, we were given one-on-one advisor sessions (Spike was my advisor). Each year he gives out grants [to help his students] and I was able to win one of those grants to go and make Cronies. After shooting the film, I came back to New York and edited the first ten minutes of the film. I showed Spike the first ten minutes in one of our advising sessions. From there, he wanted to be an EP on the project and help get it out into the world. He would often sit down with me and watch different versions of the film — about ten to fifteen versions, to be exact — providing notes each time. It was a really good experience working with him.
Filmmaker: What were some of your cinematic influences for Cronies? It feels like a low-key, unassuming story less concerned with where it ends up than with the journey it takes to get there.
Larnell: One film that inspired me was Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, as that’s also a black-and-white film that follows three men throughout the course of a day. I chose that film to represent the journey [my characters go through] over a day. She’s Gotta Have It and Kevin Smith’s Clerks were also inspirations as well.
Filmmaker: Was it the black-and-white aspect of She’s Gotta Have It specifically that was an influence?
Larnell: Well, Spike Lee uses interviews in that film too, and so I wanted to use the concept of interviews to convey information. I used those interviews to pitch the film actually. There were certain points in the film — the narrative sections — that needed to give more information to the audience, information that I couldn’t necessarily get [traditionally] through a [mapped-out] scene. When I saw how Spike Lee had used it in She’s Gotta Have It, I felt I would use it in Cronies too.
Filmmaker: Can you talk a little bit more about those series of interviews with each character? As they look directly at the camera and address an inquisitive off-screen presence [Larnell himself], these personalized moments of interrogation feel as if lifted from an ethnographic documentary.
Larnell: As I mentioned, I had made a number of pitch videos with other men playing the actors. That served as an exercise of sorts, as I wanted to show other people how these characters talked. But I also wanted to see these characters on screen for myself. I went down home, pointed a camera at a specific person and had them stare straight into the camera. People really liked this, and it came off well and was really funny, so I stayed with that technique and put it in the movie. I like static shots like that, and enjoy letting my actors move around and do their thing. It’s interesting to see how people react when watching someone stand there and talk. It engages the audience.
Filmmaker: What lead to the decision of shooting in black-and-white? The film feels more timeless as a result.
Larnell: I had never really seen the “American neighborhood” film shot in black-and-white. Those have always traditionally been in color. When I would apply to film festivals, I also knew that black-and-white would stand out and would be seen as something different. It was also a little easier to shoot because you don’t have to match colors while you’re shooting. You can get away with certain aspects of color grading in postproduction too. I always knew I had wanted to shoot in black-and-white even before having written the script.
Filmmaker: The film thus reverses a tried-and-trued cinematic cliche: you choose to shoot your flashbacks in color…
Larnell: For sure. As you watch the film, a general audience may get confused by the flashbacks, and so I presented those in color so that the audience would understand what they were.
Filmmaker: What was your experience like working with cinematographer Federico Cesca? He’s a DP whose name has been popping up a lot in recent years — in addition to your film, he shot the 2015 Sundance entry Stop from fellow NYU colleague Reinaldo Marcus Green — and his style seems hard to pin down. I mean that positively. What kind of camera did you use?
Larnell: We shot on the ALEXA, one I received from NYU (I was able to use the school’s equipment). Federico came down to St. Louis for four or five days to take photos at different locations where we planned on shooting. I did more of a shot-list than a storyboard. I wanted each scene to look different with different angles and different kinds of shots. I wanted each angle to mean something. We sat down and talked about how each scene should look. We both really love photography, and of course, movies are moving images, so we used the camera to supply different types of information.
Filmmaker: Although it’s never explicitly a story focused on race or class — our three leads are two African-American men and a Caucasian man from different walks of life — Cronies is very much about people on different paths who find each other, their lives intersecting either due to storied history or current companionship. In the crafting of the screenplay, how important was the issue of race for you, and how where one lives affects who one befriends?
Larnell: I think as humans, when we hang out with people of different races, the topic is never in your face. You’re not thinking about race when you’re hanging out [with friends]. That’s why I made it pretty subtle in the film. From a writer’s standpoint, if I were going to add another friend into the mix, why not make it a white guy? I thought that added another dynamic to the story. It’s not really talked about when people are hanging out, even though it’s obvious it’s there. That’s why I waited until the scene at the end of the film to ask the character of Andrew about it.
Filmmaker: Even with Andrew removed from the equation though, Jack and Louis are coming from rather different walks of life. Jack appears to have had a much tougher childhood. Was that something you were going for when writing the screenplay?
Larnell: Totally. Jack comes from a single-parent household and had a much more difficult time growing up. I grew up in a very blue-collar neighborhood where there were many construction workers and postmen and people with very blue-collar jobs. You could have a very comfortable childhood and yet your friends down the street or around the corner in the same neighborhood could be living very rough. They may not have the same opportunities that you have but they still live in the same neighborhood. Jack’s mom wasn’t as well-off as Louis’ parents, for example, but they could still be friends, and I really wanted to show that.
Filmmaker: Can you speak about Louis’ style? Equipped with thick glasses (complete with neck cord and nose guard) and a strapback, camouflage baseball cap, he appears to have taken his fashion cues from a young Spike Lee.
Larnell: He definitely influenced it. I always think that style is very attached to character, as it’s another subtle way to convey their personality. I wanted to use something subtle [regarding characterization] that wouldn’t require any words. By looking at him, you understand him. I wanted something that people would remember him by.
Filmmaker: When ecstasy is introduced into the story, it makes its presence known as a de facto drug-of-choice for affluent white men and women. The film touches on drug culture throughout, but in this scene it seems as though there’s a divide between those who are aware of MDMA and those who aren’t.
Larnell: Well, I think people from all walks of life use ecstasy. There are different types of it and it comes in different forms. Most people don’t take the pill form and so you don’t always know what you’re getting; most people take a more pure form. And regarding drugs in general, I feel that drugs bring people together. Even though it’s a bad thing, it brings together people from different races and communities at parties and things like that. For a lack of better words, it brings together communities.
Filmmaker: When Jack goes back to the scene of a party to confront a friend who stole Andrew’s car, a brief fight breaks out, resulting in the confrontation being recorded on an onlooker’s camera phone. She mentions the website World Star, as if she plans on submitting her incriminating footage to the infamous website (later on we find out that she does just that). It’s interesting seeing that now, for whenever there’s a confrontation on a New York City subway train, it’s recorded, uploaded online, and goes viral. Could you comment on the idea of violence becoming something to be shared online and the new video culture?
Larnell: People record everything nowadays, and I wanted to play on that as well. It was funny too. When World Star first started and people would yell out the name of the website, you knew something bad was about to happen (or something bad just had happened). I thought it would be a funny moment to add to our scene. People are always recording, looking for anything that could possibly make their video go viral. I wanted to throw that in there and play on that idea.
Filmmaker: The film is grounded in a secret (Jack’s murder of Louis’ father as a youth) that echoes throughout the film. And yet, it isn’t treated as a giant, end-of-the-world reveal, but rather a complex testimony of long-lasting friendship.
Larnell: That relationship came about while developing the film’s backstory. I had actually made a short film many years ago about that same situation. If you knew that someone was trying to save your life — or were scared that something bad was going to happen to you — then [how would you judge that person?] Jack was in the wrong, but he was in the right at the same time. That’s why I made Jack an asshole throughout the movie. I wanted to show people beyond that, who he was at his core and where his heart was.
Filmmaker: After the end credits conclude, we see one final image: a sign with the words R.I.P. MIKE BROWN scrawled across it, a reference to the slain African-American teenager from Ferguson, Missouri, whose death inspired riots and national outrage. It brings out a real sense of what was to transpire in Missouri in the months to come.
Larnell: We had shot the movie in September 2013, almost a full year before the murder took place. If we would have shot the film in 2014, I’m sure I would have incorporated more of what was going on in the city at that time and would have incorporated Ferguson more. The reason for that final image in the film is because I wanted to pay my respects to the city. Ferguson is only five minutes away from St. Louis, and so it hit very close to home.
Filmmaker: Has the film screened in Missouri?
Larnell: Yeah, we’ve shown it twice down there in October and November.
Filmmaker: The film premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Were you working hard on a final cut, attempting to submit in time for the Sundance deadline? How down-to-the-wire were you?
Larnell: I was pretty much done because I had had a year to work on it. I even went back and did a pickup shoot, so I definitely had time to work on the film. The sound design, however, came down-to-the-wire, perhaps a few weeks before we submitted in the fall of 2014.
Filmmaker: Have you enjoyed your first go-round on the festival circuit?
Larnell: It’s been pretty good and a lot more than I could have imagined. I didn’t know how people would react to the film, and then when it got into Sundance, I almost thought it was a fluke! And then when it got into the Tribeca Film Festival, I thought, “Yeah, this is pretty cool too.” And when it played in BFI London, that was the first time that I had seen the film overseas! 2015 has been a really good year for the film.