Julius Onah's Sundance drama invites us to see all sides of a character-driven mystery.
Humans are walking contradictions. No one person can ever be described with just a simple adjective; we are a compendium of qualities which change based on context and many other factors. But in practice, not all of us are afforded the luxury of being as complicated as we actually are.
That is certainly the case for Luce (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), the titular protagonist of Julius Onah's Sundance film. A star debate student, Luce is the charming, charismatic Valedictorian of his high school. He is poised to achieve great things. No one wants to see Luce succeed more than his parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who adopted him from Eritrea, where he was a child soldier. Due to his challenging background, and due to the fact that Luce is an overachieving black student in a majority-white high school, he is not afforded the kaleidoscope that most of us are viewed through. He is seen through a single lens: the boy who defied the odds and became, in a sense, perfect.
But then something unexpected happens: Luce's teacher, Harriet (Octavia Spencer), receives a provocative essay from him in which he outlines shockingly disturbing views on violence as a means to combat the forces of colonization. Harriet searches his locker and finds illegal fireworks inside. Luce, meanwhile, maintains that he shares his locker with his friends (something that is depicted in the film's early scenes). But Harriet is not satisfied with that explanation. She doesn't trust Luce and alerts his parents to the situation. At first, they stand by their son, but then things get increasingly complicated, and it becomes difficult to know whom to believe.
Onah, whose script is based on J.C. Lee's 2013 off-Broadway play, keeps us on our toes with ever-shifting perspectives that allow us to see the situation from each character's point of view. The burden of deciphering the truth lies with the audience. Onah conveys selective pieces of information, some of which sow seeds of doubt. We are tasked with deciphering each character's sincerity and motivations, moment to moment. This narrative interplay makes Luce a suspenseful experience that constantly challenges our notions of perceived truth and, along the way, illuminates our own biases.
At the height of confusion about Luce's intentions and, in turn, his identity, he says to his parents, "What's the difference between being a stereotype, or a symbol of not being that stereotype?" The film is an affecting investigation of tokenism and the ways our expectations of one another shape power and privilege.
No Film School sat down with Onah to discuss the merits of producing your own films, why he only shoots on celluloid, and more.
No Film School: This is adapted from an off-broadway play. How did you adapt it for the screen?
Julius Onah: I co-wrote it. The playwright and I wrote the script together. I had read the play in 2014 and thought it was really compelling. But the play is very tight. It was only five characters and two locations. It's a kind of heightened reality. It [takes place in a] nondescript, all-American town, so there's no sense of what's actually happening [in the world]. But the film felt like it had to be specific. So in the adaptation process, I felt like I needed to expand it vertically and horizontally in terms of the ideas it's exploring, the characters, and the plot of the story.
"This is one of those weird miracle stories of making an independent film."
I wrote the first draft of the adaptation, which I wasn't planning on doing. At first, I was just going to let J.C do it all, but he was quite busy with his TV writing career. It ended up being a happy accident [that I wrote the first draft] because I'm not locked into the world of play in the same way. I just tapped into my own personal experiences. I moved from Nigeria to America when I was 10, so there were elements of that journey that were similar to Luce's. We set the story in Arlington, Virginia, where I grew up. I used the dynamics of my own high school, and my own community.
One thing I changed from the play, for example, was that [the character of Luce] had written this paper about an unnamed Eastern European nationalist, and in the movie, I changed it to Frantz Fanon. He was a philosopher from Martinique who was part of anti-colonial movements in Algeria, and was a big part of the Algerian liberation movement in the '50s against France.
Then I handed the first draft back to J.C, and he took his pass. That was fun because certain elements of the voice of the play are things that he can do really well, and then we started trading back and forth. It took over three months to write the script, but we had been thinking and talking for a little while before that.
NFS: Which elements of your personal experience did you want to bring to the film to complicate the character of Luce, or to enrich his experiences a bit?
Onah: There's a scene in the movie where somebody says to him, "You're not black black." That really happened to me when I was in the middle of a chemistry class. Somehow race came up, and a student, who was actually a Filipino-American woman, said, "Julius isn't black." So that idea of not conforming to the expectation or the stereotype that people have of you was something that I have lived.
Also, the immigration experience—the idea of not feeling comfortable where you live. Being new to this country, and wanting to fit in, but not being sure, and also having parents who cannot necessarily fully appreciate your experience. My parents are from Nigeria and grew up in a really small village. And here I was growing up in America, and before that, I had lived all over the world. So there was just that disconnect as well. I think Luce's parents were actually more connected to him than mine, on some levels. But being white and being black, there are parts of Luce's experience that they'll never be able to fully appreciate or necessarily help him with.
And just a sense of confusion and alienation. Then, there were other specific things. I was a champion debater in high school. So I made Luce one. I thought that could become a forum to explore some of the ideas in the film. So I was just drawing on as many strengths of myself as possible to make it personal.
NFS: When you had finished the script, did you have an idea of who was going to finance the film, or who was going to help produce it?
Onah: We had no idea who was going to finance it. This is one of those weird miracle stories of making an independent film. It's never happened like this to me before, and rarely ever happens to anybody I know. I remember I started my draft in January, and by April we had our script. Then I sent it to my agent, and J.C sent it to his agent. And literally within three weeks, we got calls from six or seven different production companies and financiers and actors who were just really responding to it. So we had choices. Eventually, we found somebody who was going to trust us. And I had the final cut on the movie, and nobody bothered me. It was a really, really great experience to work that way, and I feel really lucky about that.
NFS: What were you looking for in casting Luce?
Onah: Because there is a fair amount of dialogue in this story, somebody who could really control and command the language. And somebody who you would buy authentically being this all-star kid. Someone who is really smart, really articulate, and really charming.
We cast a wide net. We did an open call and saw people from Australia, from England. I assumed that we would probably get a kid from London who did a bunch of theater. Or, like, the kid who played Barry. I think he's Australian. So I assumed the actor would be from one of these places with really robust theater traditions.
And then Kelvin Harrison, Jr. sent the tape. But before that, I had had actually had breakfast with him. His agent set me up. He came in, this really mild-mannered guy, and he asked all these questions. He seemed sort of confused, actually, so I wasn't sure if he'd be able to do this role. But really, he was using me for information to prepare his audition. And when his audition came in it was just undeniable. It was like, "Wow. This is the real deal. This is Luce."
"I only shoot my features on film. I have shot every single one on 35mm so far."
I knew he was going to be our guy from [his audition] tape, but I brought him in for a follow-up audition. I needed to make sure he could also take directions. But just from the tape, it was obvious. And it was interesting because when Naomi Watts was coming on the movie, she knew his agent. So before she agreed to meet with me, she watched Kelvin's tape. After she signed on, she was like, "By the way, I had watched Kelvin's audition. I was never going to do this if I didn't have a scene partner."
NFS: Since you come from a theater tradition, I can imagine rehearsal is very baked into your process.
Onah: Yeah, it's a big part of the process for me. We had roughly about a week and half of prep, so the rehearsals weren't too intensive. We did run scenes, but a lot of it was talking, because there's so much to unpack in the story.
I did rehearsals with Tim [Roth] and Naomi; I did rehearsals with Octavia [Spencer] and Naomi; I did rehearsals with Octavia and all of them, and all of the different parents in the movie, and also with the young kids. It's really hard on these low-budget movies, especially when there's a family, or there are a group of friends, to create enough of that shared history for the actors. Luckily, Naomi and Tim had done Funny Games together. They were able to bring that experience. Kelvin and Octavia knew each other from the Sundance Labs a couple of years before that and were fans of each other. Then, I had the kids all come to New York and hang out with each other, so everybody could create the memories and the experiences and the things that you unconsciously call on that aren't just lines of dialogue in the script.
NFS: How did you approach the cinematography, specifically with regards to bringing the play to the screen?
Onah: Larkin Seiple is an incredibly talented DP. I mean, I think Larkin is somebody we're going to be talking about for a very long time. I had the opportunity to interview a lot of very accomplished DPs for this movie, but what struck me so much about Larkin—who is also accomplished, but is still a very young guy—was he just had a clear understanding of the material and a way of articulating what he thought was right for the film.
The process of working with him was really great. We didn't always necessarily see everything eye-to-eye, but there was a healthy friction that I think made the movie even better. We did a lot of preparation. We didn't have a lot of time to shoot the film, so he and I went through every location and did photo boards, made our shot list, staged the blocking. Larkin had gone to film school and thinks like a director. It was a fun collaboration.
"You get hung up on all these things about the logistics in making the movie that you forget people are there to play and experiment. And if you don't have that, you don't have a movie."
I only shoot my features on film. I have shot every single one on 35mm so far. So that was the one prerequisite. Larkin had done it in film school, but it'd been a while, so it was a process of acclimation for him. But I think now he's shooting a ton of film. He did that video for Childish Gambino, "This is America," on film. He loves it. I don't think he might even want to go back now.
NFS: What is it about shooting on film that makes it exclusively your format?
Onah: I think there is a texture and a density to [celluloid] images that make them beautiful and psychologically rich. That's not to say that there aren't movies that have been shot electronically that don't look great or do something really interesting. Social Network is an example of something that I think, actually, because of the technological component of the story, works well on digital. Mad Max: Fury Road is a gorgeous movie. But for me and to my taste, there is a psychological richness that comes from film that just can't be replicated.
Also, there's the color of reproduction. It's just magical. For a movie like this where it's easy for it to feel a little flat because there are a lot of conversations, I love just feeling that grain dancing. We push the stocks and beat them up in color correction to really embrace the fact that we were shooting film. Now, stocks are so robust, so sharp, and so clean. There are times you can shoot film and people might not tell the difference, but that's not what we wanted with this.
NFS: What was the healthy friction that you had with Larkin? How did you push each other?
Onah: There were certain times when something might not be working, and I would push, "Just go for another take."
We had this one big one-er in the movie. At first, I had imagined the scene with coverage, but Larkin would say, "No, we definitely should this one-er." So I was like, "Okay, let's do it." But then on the day, we were running out of time and we needed to make our day. And I was like, "No, if we're going do this one-er, we got to keep on [getting takes]."
That's what I mean. It wasn't animosity, but it was trying to manage the day. Also constantly trying to push each other to make it the best it could be, and making sure that we challenged ourselves in the coverage. One of the things that I really admired about Larkin was he always wanted to push to find the most interesting way to tell the story of a shot. And then the balance is, "Okay, well you also have to think about time." Because sometimes the most interesting shot might affect your schedule, and you might have to compromise if it doesn't allow you to do something else important. So we were constantly navigating that.
You know, we only had 25 days to make the movie, and it was a 120-page script. So it was a lot of work.
NFS: Can you think of a scene that wasn't going exactly the way you wanted it to go on set? How did you navigate it with the actors?
Onah: There was a scene where Amy [Watts's character] comes back home after this big scene where she finds out about the history of Stephanie's [Luce's ex-girlfriend's] sexual assault. We were actually going to do that scene outside, partially 'cause Larkin and I just wanted to do a cold nighttime exterior, and there was a pool right by. There were all these things we were going to do. But we're reading with the actors and they're just not feeling it. Tim and Naomi just couldn't get into it.
When I was younger, I would just have been like, "Come on guys, let's do it." But when you have actors with that kind of experience, they can feel it on an atomic level when something is working and when it's not. Larkin had started lighting it anyway. I was like, to the actors, "Let's talk about this inside." As we're just feeling our way through it, we started walking around the house, and then we ended up back at the dining table, and then something just snapped in the place, and the actors were feeling it.
It was annoying because we had to relight the whole scene, but I was like, "I think we should do it at the dining table." And now one of my favorite scenes in the movie is this scene with the two of them just talking at the dining table. Larkin found a way to light it beautifully and there's a great exchange at the end of it where Tim storms out, but right before that, he curses at his wife and she curses back. That curse was an improv. I remember the feeling on set. It was so electric, what had just happened between them. But that's the difference between actors when they feel comfortable and present, versus when they're just saying their lines. So I'm really glad that I listened to their instincts.
NFS: Did you have trouble trusting the actors earlier in your career?
Onah: It's not to say I didn't have confidence in that before, but I think I had a greater appreciation on this film of their need to feel present. People love to say, "Film is a visual medium, da, da, da, da." Or there are clichés like, "The actors are just cattle." But from the very beginning, because it started off as a play, I knew this movie was going to be performance-driven, and I wanted to make sure that we were always creating the right space for the performers. I think they all did a phenomenal job in the movie, but that's because they were given the space and the comfort to really do their thing. I saw my job more clearly than ever, which was not to necessarily be like, "This is the way it has to be." But it was more like, "These are the parameters that you want to be careful about not stepping out of" in order to maintain the tone and the consistency of the film.
There were times when they did step out of that, but that was also part of the exploration and the process before we narrowed it in. Sometimes they would have improvisation ideas. I was like, "All right, just go for it." And often they would dial it back themselves after they got it out of their system. So that was something I became much more comfortable with going through, whereas before I was always like, "We don't have time." You get hung up on all these things about the logistics in making the movie sometimes that you forget people are there to play and experiment, and if you don't have that, you don't have a movie.
NFS: That's what's hard about shooting and filming in 25 days.
Onah: It's just all about just making your day. I've unfortunately had the experience of people who thought it was. And guess what? Nobody is ever going to congratulate on how well you made your day on the film. They won't watch it and go, 'The movie sucked, but they sure made their days.'"
With this film, I was also a producer of the film, so I had a certain amount of latitude. Obviously, there's still money and all those things you have to consider. But I had a little bit more latitude to say, "Look guys, we really need to make sure we're creating this space for actors to do their thing." Especially when you have a cast like this, it'd be foolish to be bringing them on board and not letting them do what they need to do.
NFS: Had you produced before?
Onah: I produced my first feature.
NFS: How do you incorporate that into a process as a director?
Onah: It starts with being able to set the perimeters of production. Having a final cut, determining the schedule of what the day is going to look like, what order we're going to shoot things...again, you're still negotiating with your first AD, and your PM, and other things that are logistical. But the producorial component of it for me was really important because it meant I was involved in every decision. But at a certain point of the directing, you do have to take off that producing hat. I was just informed about how money was being spent [during production]. I couldn't follow the minutiae of it all, but I could go, "Okay, well if I spend this much on this, then I'm sacrificing here." It's good knowing what it is and why, versus when I've had other people produce for me, oftentimes they just leave you in the dark. And you're like, "Well, why can't I do this thing?" So being empowered that way I think was really helpful.
It's just a comfort thing. And as a director, if I'm comfortable, then it's much easier to make the cast comfortable, make the crew comfortable. It's a top-down thing.
NFS: Are there any drawbacks to it in terms of how it impacts your ability to direct?
Onah: For me, not at all, because I know how to create the space I need for myself to direct. Some producers are great at doing that for you, and some are not so great at doing that. So if you're a director who doesn't produce, it's about finding the producing partners who can create that space for you.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.