"It's Almost a Requirement to Overwrite the Script"—Elegance Bratton Breaks Down 'The Inspection' for NFS

Elegance Bratton breaks down 'The Inspection'
'The Inspection'Credit: A24
Writer/director Elegance Bratton shares his insights and inspiration behind his love story to the Marines, his mother, and himself. 

Few movies take a deeply intimate look at a character while subverting the typical script. The Inspection does just that. It is a redemption story that never fully finds that redemption, a story about identity without the usual scenes of oppression, and a journey that doesn't end when the credits start rolling. It’s a human tale that is beautifully heartbreaking and heartwarming and is always searching for the good in each moment.  

Writer and director Elegance Bratton’s intimate drama follows a gay Black man, Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), who is in the U.S. military trying to discover his place and worth in the world. The movie is beautiful and brutal, giving the audience moments to celebrate the characters and their struggles and wins. 

The A24 character study is Bratton taking a hard look at his own memories, many of which are painful. French’s story is a version of Bratton’s own, and the visual language is Bratton looking back at his memories of those times with fondness, understanding, and forgiveness. 

Bratton spoke with No Film School about the process behind writing and directing his debut feature. 

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

No Film School: Congratulations on your first narrative feature being out in the world. What inspired you to turn this story, which is based on a massive turning point in your life, into a film?

Elegance Bratton: The Inspection comes from my own life story. When I was 16 years old, I was kicked out of my house for being gay and I spent 10 years homeless. Then at 25, I joined the Marines. I showed up at their doorstep feeling mostly worthless and like I didn’t have a real place in the world until I had a drill instructor inform me that my life was important because I had a responsibility to protect the Marine to my left and to my right, and the implied trust of that gave me something to hold onto so I could lift myself up out of the situation I was in. 

And that's why I made the movie. I feel like we're in super polarized times right now, where just people are screaming at each other across their differences rather than hearing each other. I wanted to offer the world this thing that was really transformational and helpful to me, to see if it would help anybody else.

NFS: One thing I really noticed about this film was that it really highlights the beauty and brutality of the world, especially in the Marines. How are you able to find this balance when you were writing the screenplay, and then when you were behind the camera?

Bratton: Well, first of all, beauty and brutality, I think that could be the story of anybody's autobiography. That's life. Life is terrible and horrific and brilliant and transcendent, all. Often at the same time. Just my own life experience is how I see the world. I look at something grotesque and I see something beautiful. I look at something beautiful and I see something grotesque. It's just how my mind is wired.

Cinematically speaking, my cinematographer, Lachlan Milne, and I were really adamant about creating a visual language that could suggest French's emotional life. When we're in French's point of view, it's a handheld movie. It's like Beau Travail or other arthouse films. Beau Travail is an amazing film. It’s got that subjective, consultative, poetic kind of camera when we're in French's point of view. 

Then, we see him in the world, it's very much a camera that's on sticks. It's on a tripod. It's formal, it's rigid. we're trying to suggest, through visual language, the shaky ground that queer troops stand on, and really the ground that French is trying to stand on to build himself. It's this individual within a system.

That is all about the complexity of the human relationships that we see in the movie, that each of these men has been given an impossible task in line with what French has been given. But that's what French discovers—that he's not alone. He thinks he can't make it because he's gay, but in reality, if you were a Muslim, you would feel this way. If you were a drill instructor, you would feel this way. They're all trying to learn how to become men. I think of that Simone de Beauvoir’s quote, "One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman." I think that French has come to learn that one is not born a man, that one becomes a man and he's in the Harvard of masculinity, to try to figure it out.

Elegance Bratton breaks down 'The Inspection'
Writer/Director Elegance Bratton with Jeremy Pope and Gabrielle Union.Credit: Matt Licari/Invision/AP

NFS: Oh, I love that. The idea of masculinity changes over the years and it changes from person to person, and I think the film really illustrates that. Being masculine or a man doesn't mean you have to be violent toward others.

Bratton: Right. Well, that's the thing. I feel like sometimes the way that men are taught, like how the patriarchy teaches men, is that forgiveness is some sort of sign of weakness or ineffectiveness in seeking revenge. In my life, forgiveness has been a source of my strength. It is the thing that my whole self is built upon. That when you have an intrinsic understanding that your life is dependent upon other people's collaboration, then all of a sudden, the level of offense has to be that much higher in order to break the bond because I can't get by without you. I don't live if you don't live.

I think that I am really trying to reinvent and offer another point of view through French's character. This young man does not give up on people. He's definitely, radically empathetic to others. I think that that's just a necessary component as a black gay man because you have this pressure to shape-shift because people are not necessarily imagining you. They don't know what box you fit in, so you kind of have to see what boxes are available sometimes and morph yourself into them. Again, looking at ones that could be seen as a weakness, an inability to choose a self might become a strength when you're in a situation where you need others to get through.

NFS: The visual language of this movie is absolutely stunning. You mentioned arthouse earlier, and I was thinking when I was watching, it was really reminiscent of naturalism and then it also had moments of beautiful queer cinema. That was beautiful. But one moment that I really want to call out is your use of lens flares throughout the movie. Can you break down the surreal beauty of a lens flare and why you decided to use it throughout your movie?

Bratton: I think it begins with the references. I'm the type of writer where things keep me up at night, and one of the things that kept me up at night was, how do I pass time and how do I make it feel like something different is going on when they all look the same and they all have the same clothes on and they're all in the same buildings over and over and over? My creative partner, life partner, and love of my life, my thusband, Chester, and I say "thusband" because their pronouns are they/them, found this book by William Eggleston where it's all just clouds, and it's literally, “I guess I'm pointing the camera at the sun and taking pictures of clouds for 300 pages."

The first step is that book, seeing the lens flare executed this way. It's the sky with some clouds in it. It's not a lot going on, yet each photo has a totally different mood and a totally different tone. Then I think the other thing is that there's a bit of a love letter to boot camp. I enjoyed boot camp. I enjoyed being a Marine. It was hard. I'm not trying to deny the fact that there was massive oppression going on, and I had moments of depression and anxiety and all of that. But when you cloud out the system and you just focus on your relationships, some of the best friends I ever had remained in the Marine Corps. And boot camp was a really special time. It's kind of like summer camp meets jail meets a fraternity, you know what I mean? So it's like you end up forming these intense emotional connections to men and this kind of intimacy with men.

I think that that nostalgia, the lens flare is just so good at giving the emotional tone of a memory. Something about looking up at the sun. I just think it's unique. It's almost like Icarus. It's an archetypal human thing to look up at the sun too long and to be burned, for it to leave a burning impression. And I think that is what it's like to look back on the past. That's what it's like to remember one's youth. Now, if I were to go to boot camp, I don't know if I could physically make it through without sustaining a major injury. But there was a time in my life when I was young enough to, and I remember my body being able to do that, and there's a warmth to that, that I think a lens flare is able to do. But it's also a subversive tactic as well because it can be unpleasant to look at the sun too long.

We strategically use—and this is also a testimony to our editor, Oriana Soddu, and her incredible list of references and ways of approaching a film—used lens flares because when you look at where the lens flares land in the movie, you'll start to notice that they're at searing moments of transformation. They're foreshadowing in a way. I'm also, coming from the background I come from documentary [filmmaking], from being homeless, all of that, and even making my short films, I'm very economical and pragmatic. I'm trying to wring as much out of the gears as I possibly can for the money that I have. The sun was there, so I used it.

Elegance Bratton breaks down 'The Inspection'
'The Inspection'Credit: A24

NFS: Before I move on to my next question, I just want to call out my favorite shot in the whole film was right after the boot camp, where I believe one of the drill sergeants is in front of the fire and there was this beautiful lens flare. It was gorgeous.

Bratton: Thank you. See, the thing is, we ended up with four different camera teams at once because we were initially promised a 23-day shoot, but we had COVID-19 going on, and then it was hot. It was Mississippi in the summer. It was so, so hot, like 115 degrees every day. 

We ended up getting shut down, and we were gone, out of commission for four months. Then, when we came back, we lost five days. So we ended up shooting the movie you saw in 19 days. So that day, that shot, that was me literally on my cell phone to that camera team being like, "You got to get that, this way," and literally Googling stuff like, "See this movie? Like this. Go do the Terrence Malick thing over there. Okay, great."

NFS: I know that you mentioned you worked as a documentarian for quite a while. Do you think some of those skills you learned from working as a documentary filmmaker influenced your decisions while making this film?

Bratton: Oh yeah. To me, naturalism is very much in conversation with my documentary work. Even the performances, in the sense that I'm big on consent with everybody. I want everybody to be on the same page and be excited about what they're doing. There are definitely moments where I held firm to exactly what I intended to do, but there are other moments where I felt like I'm surrounding myself with incredibly talented and smart people on purpose so that I can hear what they have to say. 

My motto is to try to treat everyone like they're the director of whatever they do for the film. If you're the PA, you're the director of that. If you're the makeup artist, you're the director of the makeup. I'm trying to create a mutual respect environment, and I think that's directly from my Pier Kids experience.

And I'm not done making documentaries. I don't even really see a difference between documentary and narrative films, honestly. I just think that they're two different pathways to the same result, which is a movie. 

I'm constantly in the process of chasing the truth. And maybe in an uncontrolled action situation, you might be with a participant for 12 to 16 hours in a day, and for whatever reason, when you're ready to pack up, in two minutes a thing happens that makes the whole day make sense. You're chasing the truth when you're in a set, everything is rehearsed meticulously. Every camera is placed, and the marks are set. And then somebody does something in the middle of a take that you just catch in the back of the frame, and you're like, "Ooh, that actually says it." Now you're chasing the truth.

So I think my improvisational, and also just pragmatic, skills are what helped me make my documentaries, most of them, with pennies and duct tape. There's a resourcefulness that I have as a filmmaker that is definitely from my documentary stuff. 

I guess my main note would be to have a good time. That's the other thing I learned in my docs, is to have fun. If everybody's having fun, then everybody's having fun. If one person is not having fun, then everybody is not having fun.

Elegance Bratton breaks down 'The Inspection'
'The Inspection'Credit: A24

NFS: Is there any scene that was a challenge for you to either write or direct and what did you take away from that challenge?

Bratton: First of all, the movie isn’t 100% autobiographical when it comes to the hopes, fears, and desires of French, even if the situation's something I've been in. But when it's with his mother, all of that is out of my life. I'll give you the answer in the emotional and then the logistical. 

On an emotional level, pretty much every scene with the mom [Gabrielle Union] was intense. The one that was the worst for me initially was when he gets his birth certificate because that home is a recreation of a home that I had never gotten access to again.

On that day, when I got onto set and I saw what Tommy Love and Erik Louis Robert had done with the location, it all hit me, like, "Wow, the only way I got back here is by making it happen myself." It was such an empowering moment for me, but also such a searingly sad moment for me. So that was really hard just to get back to go. Luckily, you only have 12 hours to shoot everything, so very quickly got snatched out of that moment and back to work. But it was definitely—I remember it well, walking in there and just having the wind knocked out of me because I had returned back to something so traumatic for me.

From the logistical side, it was the graduation scene because again, we were shooting a movie in the summer in Mississippi. We had four different movies shooting simultaneously. That meant that in terms of background talent, it was just really hard to get that. We were at Target parking lots and TGI Fridays, at the mall, casting, trying to fill it out. 

The way the scene was initially written was that most of what happens between French at his mother's was to happen within the backdrop of the pomp and circumstance of the parade. I think it still kind of does, but it does so in a way that's much more aligned with what we had available to us at the time.

Even the scene in the hallway, towards the end, is something that was initially written to be in her car and I was preparing for it to be in her car. Even the car, when she walks out, that shot in the rearview mirror, shoutout to Mark Mower who was handling the camera that day, but that shot in the mirror when she's walking into the graduation, that's all we had. That was it. We have two red, white, and blue stickers. We have four streamers. How do we make it feel like something bigger is going on? And I was like, "Oh, let's do it in the rearview mirror."

The interesting thing is, it was written like that in the script too, but in my mind, it was her in the mirror view, her face in that. It was not her walking in it until I got to the set and we didn't have it. On that day, we also had four different camera teams operating at once and we shot, I think a full 12, if not a little bit more that day as well. Everybody is working at the top level, with full urgency, all day, most of the night. I'm literally, "Cut. Text. Okay, they're over in the woods." Do you know what I mean? "Okay, let me call them. Okay, go do this. Okay. Action. Put it on mute. Action." It's all over the place, but we got it done.

Elegance Bratton breaks down 'The Inspection'
'The Inspection'Credit: A24

NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers who want to make their first narrative feature?

Bratton: Yes. A couple of things. First thing, I think it's almost a requirement to overwrite the script that will get you greenlit for your first feature because you are really creating a tool. The script is a tool at all stages of development. It's much more obvious in production and post-production how to use a script, but when you're trying to get a movie made, the script is a tool for whoever you're talking to get the financing, to be able to walk into the rooms they need to walk in and fight for your project. Sometimes, you might have to underline a thing or two so that that person or those people, those individuals who are doing that negotiation for you, are able to have what they need.

Obviously, you don't want it to be on the nose and didactic in any way. You want it to be within the world of the film. But I didn't realize I had gilded the lily, I'd over-written certain moments, until I got to production, and [my producers] Effie and Chester were like, "You know you have four endings to this movie?" And each ending is giving a different facet of the same thing. But at a certain point, you're just so consumed with trying to get it made, you don't see that until you have put so much money and but so much time and you're like, "Oh, snap." So once you're greenlit, just keep that in the back of your head.

I think the other thing is, a lot of times, you probably have the people around you that you're going to make it with right away, and you think that you have to go to all these places and do all these things to meet these people. Everyone who ended up being involved in the movie, I met two years prior to me being in the lab. Not to say that labs don't help. It definitely helped to get those people more focused on the project. But for us, I wrote the first draft in 2017 and I took it to my boy who just got hired at A24, with the first draft, and I was like, "Yo, man, this is an A24 movie, bro. It's going to change your life. I know you're going to say yes. Just read it so I can hear you say yes." And he read it and he did not say yes. He said, "No, it's not an A24 film, not yet."

Nonetheless, over those five years, he was still around. "Do you have another draft? Let me see." I'm taking notes, he's giving me notes. Then, we ended up making the movie together. Sometimes, it's not about the immediate yes or no from whomever you're trying to reach out to. It's about the vibe of collaborating with you. It's a lot of money to invest in someone for a first film and they want to know, what is it like to work with you? So if you get too much in your feelings about being told no, and you act a fool, you might actually be cutting yourself off from the person that might say yes. I didn't do that, luckily, but I was close.     

You can watch The Inspection only in theaters on Nov. 18. 

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