If you had the power to expose law enforcement wrongdoing, knowing that it could negatively affect you and your family's future for the rest of their lives, would you do it? Less interested in a "Rashomon effect" than a domino one, Reinaldo Marcus Green's Monsters and Menconfronts this question head-on, following three separate narrative threads each affected by the senseless killing of an African-American man by the New York Police Department on a corner in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Portraying the perspectives of a local man (Anthony Ramos) who captures the shooting on his camera phone, a black NYPD police officer (John David Washington) who begrudgingly but stoically stands up for the police force, and a high school student (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) with dreams of becoming a professional baseball player (but is drawn to political activism in the wake of the shooting), the film is less interested in connecting the perspectives than presenting the specific moral dilemmas that each face.
The film builds to an ending but not a conclusion; how possibly could it? Justice isn't served, but the repercussions of the fateful evening are felt by all involved (and several who aren't). In providing honest interpretations of each of his characters' stances, Green's screenplay doesn't make a judgment call but rather a humanist one. At what cost do you stand up for what you believe in?
As the film opens in theaters this weekend, Green spoke with No Film School about expanding his short into a feature, writing characters with opposing points-of-view, the most difficult aspects of production, and balancing his personal and professional lives.
No Film School: This film originated as a short, Stop, which was released in 2015 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. From that moment, had you been thinking about expanding the story into a feature? What did the short's success provide you with?
Green: The short answer is "no." I wasn't thinking about making a feature out of it. Having a short be picked up for distribution is a very difficult thing to have happen, so when it happened at Sundance, it was like "what!? I sold a short!" It's a very rare thing. Usually, you're lucky enough to play a short at a big festival, and then you're trying to get into other festivals and hope to get that big explosion.
When we got distribution from Cannes, that was huge, but what I realized was that it was playing in parts of the country that I was surprised about, such as the deep South and Mid-West. The short is a pretty New York-centric story, and yet I'm getting calls from Tennessee and Alabama for my short and other places in the world that wish to play it. It was amazing to see that it was in demand in different places where I was not aware of.
I had cast a cop in my short, a real New York City police officer. That's where the genesis for the feature happened, based on a conversation I had with my cop friend. We were talking about the Eric Garner case in Staten Island and that conversation lead to a pretty heated debate, which ended up being somewhat like the dinner scene you see in the feature film. At that time, I wasn't thinking about expanding my short, but that conversation sat with me and I thought, "Well, that's a way to add some perspective to the short, how I can go about expanding these nine minutes into a feature version." Our conversation was an entryway into expanding it.
"I think there was like a little bit of an expectation: you make a short and that's supposed to be a step towards a feature, right?"
NFS: Was there any stop-and-go regarding production on the feature? How did you know when it was the right time to move forward?
Green: I was producing a ton of shorts—I was tasked to produce some other features for some friends—but really I was waiting on rewrites and waiting for other folks to do stuff while I was already making my own shorts. There was the real life demand of "I'm finishing film school, I have $300,000 in debt, how do I earn a living as a film maker?"
I had an opportunity because I had a pair of successful shorts and it seemed like the opportunity to make something, whether it was as a producer or writer/director. It was like, "Oh, people are coming to me and asking what I am doing next because I have had these shorts...."
Keishawn Butler in Reinaldo Marcus Green's short film, 'Stop.'
NFS: Were they expecting a feature out of you? Is that the natural progression?
Green: I think there was like a little bit of an expectation: you make a short and that's supposed to be a step towards a feature, right? The feature doesn't necessarily have to be in the same narrative family but I would be asked, "what are you doing next?" It was much easier to answer that I'm making my own feature as a writer/director because I had made a short film. There was an appetite for what I was doing next after I had that short, and people were asking me, "What are you going to do next?" I had to eventually answer that question.
I had written a feature comedy and was having a difficult time getting it off the ground because I didn't have any comedic shorts to complement it. And so, I thought, "I need to something that's sort of the same cousin as Stop, I need to make a cousin to Stop." I needed to make something dramatic as I had [already made] dramatic shorts. In thinking about what I could get made, what I needed to get made to basically stay employed, was how this idea was born.
"Bed-Stuy is obviously a very iconic place in Brooklyn, people have heard of it even if they have never been to Brooklyn."
NFS: The film takes place in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a neighborhood synonymous with Spike Lee's 1989 classic, Do the Right Thing. That film was about a tight-knit community contrasted with the unwelcome presence of gentrification and police surveillance, and I was wondering if there were other parallels you discovered along the way?
Green: Absolutely. I live very close to Bed-Stuy and I grew up in Staten Island. I thought, "Maybe I should go back to Staten Island and make the film" and then was like, "Bed-Stuy basically offers all of the things that I need in terms of being able to shoot, and so why go over the Goethals Bridge every day?" So now my commute to work would be 15 minutes each day. I would take the train to Bed-Stuy all the time, so why not?
It was absolutely a wink to Spike, as I grew up on that film. Now, that film was shot on one block in Bed-Stuy and my film takes place over several blocks, but what I loved is how he used location as a character in the film. I thought, "Maybe I can do that?" Bed-Stuy is obviously a very iconic place in Brooklyn, people have heard of it even if they have never been to Brooklyn. You've heard about Bed-Stuy, and so there is a recognizable element to shooting there. It's just an amazing community, you know, a thriving community, and it just felt right for this film, especially based on where I am in proximity to it.
John David Washington in Reinaldo Marcus Green's 'Monsters and Men,' courtesy of NEON.
NFS: How important was it for you to map out the area for audiences who may not be familiar with that part of Brooklyn? In addition to the relationships between the characters, the setting has to accentuate the physical closeness of them as well.
Green: We definitely needed to establish, "Okay, the Zyric character has to pass by the same things [as the other characters] so that they are all one step removed from each other." They all know of each other loosely or have heard of each other.
There were probably more connections in the original draft of this script than you probably see in the finished product of the film, but we definitely tried to keep it centralized, i.e. you recognize throughout the film, as an audience member, that deli where the shooting happened, and that was important for keeping the story threads together and making it feel as though it didn't happen in a different city or something.
We wanted to make it feel like one community, especially so the stories don't intersect like in Crash or Amores Perros. We didn't have that kind of intersection and so I needed something to bind this area together.
"I was like, 'I feel like I'm forcing this intersecting thing because that's what's expected out of triptychs.' I then decided that I was going to write them as three shorts and then work backward from there."
NFS: Speaking of that, in expanding the short into a feature, you created a triptych of sorts that are connected on a macro level, but that also exist as their own individual stories. Did you ever have to resist the temptation to interlock the three into a clean narrative package?
Green: Definitely. I went back and forth about it and had actually bought the script to Amores Perros, which is one of my favorite films; it was an amazing first film. That script intersects stories on page five before changing stories, and I tried to write Monsters and Men in that format and was failing miserably. It just didn't work for the story I was trying to tell.
I was like, "I feel like I'm forcing this intersecting thing because that's what's expected out of triptychs." I then decided that I was going to write them as three shorts and then work backward from there. I went through various iterations of the draft, trying to figure out how to do it and then we shot some connectors, things that were more in the "Crash family", and every time I would do it, I would feel that it was trying to be something else, that it was trying to be something that it wasn't, something that's not original. I was like, "At the very least, I'm going to be original throughout this process, at least trying to be original throughout this process."
I was trying to resist what would be expected of the film. If we think this is going to happen, let me subvert, subvert, subvert, subvert, and I kept trying to do that. That's what the short did so well: subvert what you think is going to happen. I just wanted to keep that tension and tone throughout, and I think it sustained the tension.
I wanted to have that sort of edge, to make you feel a little uncomfortable, and then to have you think that something is going to happen and it doesn't. I thought this was the best format for that. I thought about the transitions and how I could do those, such as in films like Elephant and how I could smoothly transition through them.
Anthony Ramos in Reinaldo Marcus Green's 'Monsters and Men,' courtesy of NEON.
NFS: Were you interested in defining a visual identity for each story? The middle section feels warmer, with more orange tones and low-key lighting, while the first part feels cooler, bluer, slightly overcast, and times, rainy.
Green: I had all these thoughts (whether we achieved them or not) about the film starting cool and heating up as the discussions about race got hotter and hotter and as the film progresses. It might have just been a thing in my mind, that we start off here and then get more active. I don't know if that informed the color palette as we were filming.
There were some happy, happy accidents along the way. The scene in the rain just happened [we didn't predict the rain]. Nothing is more cinematic than rain or snow and we were very lucky in that dramatic moment where Manny is being pulled away by the police and it's pouring out. We couldn't have asked for a better moment, his whole world pouring down on him and having it feel even more powerful.
We wanted to keep with pretty neutral things and stay away from as many stereotypes as we possibly could. We thought about how we photographed our characters. We didn't focus on the garbage in the neighborhood. That wasn't important. We focused on human beings, their faces, and what they're feeling, you know? We don't have any real explicit violence in the film, nor explicit language for that matter, as we really tried to be careful in showing you things that you don't typically see.
"I knew as the screenwriter that this is what the movie was actually about; that scene was the movie. I refused to change it."
NFS: As a writer, I'm sure it was your goal to depict each point-of-view as concisely as possible and that requires you to empathize with some pretty contrasting opinions, chief among them the police officer in the dinner table sequence.
Green: The dinner scene we actually took to the Sundance Directors Lab back in June of 2017 and workshopped the scene there. The dinner scene, in the script was always a problem. Some people were like, "You know the cop character is contradicting himself and it doesn't make sense for the character. Why would he say that?" I was like, "I'm not going to change what will maybe make the movie."
I thought back to the conversation I had with my cop friend and that conversation was the only reason it's made it to this point. I knew as the screenwriter that this is what the movie was actually about; that scene was the movie. I refused to change it. It was is contrary to how I felt and my beliefs. The point was that something that you were not expecting someone to say says it, and then you're like, "Well dude, that makes me feel really uncomfortable?" It made me feel uncomfortable when I heard it and was like "Oh my God, that was the essence, I knew it made you feel uncomfortable, that's the point!"
I think we need to get to that place of discomfort to then move beyond that. We struggled with that scene because on paper it's just not what you want to hear, you know? At least not for a lot of folks.
NFS: What was it like effectively "remaking" the scene in Stop in your feature version?
Green: We had a grammar for the film based on that short and I wanted to respect that. We ended up shooting on the same exact street, we went back to the exact same apartment; we graciously called the woman who let us use the apartment to see if we could shoot there. I changed a few elements in the short-to-feature journey, i.e. from a mom to a dad, which the way it was always written, it was always written to be with a boy and his father, but we ended up casting that kid and then casting his mom because we already had the mom in the home.
Even though we shot on the same street [during the stop-and-frisk sequence], it was funny because they had taken the fence down and so we were tasked with putting the fence back up to make it look like same! We cast one of the same cops, the one that I had the conversation with before making the film. He returned to play an NYPD police officer, and so we kept a lot of the same things, as much as possible, same elevator, same building, etc. We wanted to make it feel the same way it did in the short.
However, I didn't want to take the short and stretch it. I wanted it to include a whole different perspective, and having the cops was something we hadn't seen before and it added to the conversation.
"[The scene] is still small but it doesn't make you think that we didn't have any money. We did the best we could and tried to put every dollar on screen."
NFS: How long was the shoot?
Green: 24 days.
NFS: What would you say was the most challenging aspect of production? And how does it feel now that you've overcome it?
Green: Production-wise, the protest scene near the end of the film was always a thing of contention because it was like, "How many extras are we going to get? Where do we shoot it to make it feel like a real thing? How do we give it some scale? We're making an independent film but how do we let it break out from that feeling of being small?"
We have a very intimate movie with these three simple cards, and yet we have certain scenes that give it a look that elevates it, and a scene like that was important to "breaking it out." We were fortunate enough to film that final protest scene and we had a lot of smoke and picked the right location and tried to keep it self-contained. It's still small but it doesn't make you think that we didn't have any money. We did the best we could and tried to put every dollar on screen.
NFS: Was that all shot in one evening?
Green: That was all in one evening, yeah. We didn't have enough time and we were running out of time that evening, before overtime. The clock was ticking and it was like, "We've got five minutes left to get this shot....."
There's an alternate version of this movie, we have the "Crash version" on the editing room floor somewhere and one on the hard drives, you know, with John David Washington's cop character coming back around, but that just wasn't within the reality of these situations. They don't end up that way.
"That's the toughest part about filmmaking, how to sustain all of this, how to have a career, not a job."
NFS: How have you discovered a solid work/personal life balance? You've just returned from shooting the Netflix series, Top Boy, in England, you're back in New York promoting this film, you have a family to take care of...have you figured it all out?
Green: It's a continual thing, you know? I do feel lucky that I have a family and I have a constant reminder of keeping perspective. I have mouths to feed, so to speak, and I have a family that I have to take care of, but my son doesn't care about my movie career, he just cares about his dad being home. At the end of the day, I have to separate work from family life or I'm not going to have my family.
I think it's constant, just trying to find the balance and exploring the things that I like, the things that I'm curious about; I think that's what this whole thing is about. It's being a voice and trying to tell stories that people can connect with. You don't see too many parents doing it, although there are a few of us, such as Eliza Hittman. But I was looking around at my contemporaries, and I'm like, "Yeah, there are a lot of single men and women doing this!" There aren't many parents, at least contemporaries, the "full-timers."
I do feel a little alone sometimes, like I need somebody to talk to about balancing all of this. Maybe Jeremy Saulnier and I should get a beer. It doesn't matter, but I would love to talk to him, like how do you figure it all out? I'd love to get a beer or two with some of these other dads and moms and talk about out how to do this thing and how to sustain it. That's the toughest part about filmmaking, how to sustain all of this, how to have a career, not a job. I want to make sure that I have a career doing this.
For more information on 'Monsters and Men,' click here.