I’ve been writing about the new film Newlyweeds here on Bold As Love for the past few months with good reason. Director Shaka King’s ambitious feature film debut is a bitingly funny ‘black’ comedy that by the end is a truly focused character study of two young people refusing to begin taking their lives seriously. The one thing kept them together is the one thing that breaks them apart – their love of smoking weed.
I recently interviewed the Brooklyn, NY born and bred King about his film, which debuts today at NYC’s Film Forum and at Crenshaw 15 and Rave 18 in Los Angeles. We chatted about how his script evolved into what we see now, how he gathered such an outstanding cast, and how he made a real New York film.
Curtis John: I’m so glad to see how far you’ve come with your film as I was at its first public script reading. How much has changed from early versions of the script and your actual shooting script, and then into editing?
Shaka King: It changed drastically. In the original [Lyle and Nina] aren’t even living together…she’s still living with her parents. Diane Neal’s character Manny actually had a much bigger role that was really funny but we had to cut for space, and the biggest is the ending where Lyle and Nina go into the sunset together. Originally her Mom calls the cops but they leave together in a cab a la The Graduate…the cab turns into a plane and they fly away into the air, but that’s not really the ending I wanted.
That ending was complex and complicated to shoot with cranes and such but we setup to shoot it and did…. but it turned out kinda muddy looking and mostly unusable. Honestly, despite all the effort it took I was glad that happened since [as a director] I enjoy cutting my shots and getting rid of material we don’t need to use. We just ended up reshooting the ending with my buddy who owned the cab driving Lyle alone to the airport.
CJ: Most of us only know your male lead Lyle, played by Amari Cheatom, from his mostly quiet but extremely memorable role in Night Catches Us. How did you two meet and why in your opinion was he ideal to play Lyle?
SK: Amari and I met through Gbenga [Akinnagbe, one of our producers] who told me we have to meet , that he would be the next big thing and you should work with him now before he blows up.
There were a ton of reasons to cast him. In Night Catches Us, to me he was the most interesting cast member – there was so much going on with him. You really don’t know what’s going on with him: does he have a mental disorder, or what? With all due respect to [director] Tanya Hamilton, I can see he brought a lot to the character, more than was on the page. After we Skyped [with each other] the connection was instant; you just know people that remind you of yourself. I can tell that we had similarities. I can tell he has an ‘old soul’ – a term thrown around but it applies to him. I can also tell that in his own personal life that he was on the cusp of self-discovery, which is where I wanted Lyle to be at the end of the movie. He also looked like a real person. Not like a wide receiver, at the gym eight hours a day like other actors, no offense at all to them, but like someone realistic. We did have to work on his accent because he’s from Atlanta and he needed to sound like a Brooklyn dude, but he was adept at shifting that baritone. I don’t know what’s up with Los Angeles, but he should be working more.
CJ: Beyond her acting, and she did a really great job for her first feature film, I love Trae Harris because she reminds me of a pixie — like Tinkerbell from Peter Pan, which actually makes for a perfect weed-head. But what was it about her that attracted you to casting her as Nina?
SK: That was the most difficult role to cast. I wanted someone that reminded me of one of my friends, but most of the actresses I was auditioning don’t or never smoked weed. It was important that both actors either have in the past or presently smoke weed or had a sense of what it was to be really high…to have that sense memory.
On top of that, a lot of the actresses were in that pipeline were used to auditioning as the ‘black friend’ and had to have a perm or have their shit together or be exceptionally pretty by a Western sense of beauty. Nothing against them, that’s part of the business, but I wasn’t looking for a model. I kind of wanted an actress who didn’t really want to be an actress.
Then I had a friend who was helping me cast extras and she showed me Trae’s photos and her resume had this [website] link to how she styles herself and I felt: this is Nina four years in the future. I didn’t even know if she could act. So many people in this movie had never acted before. So we set up a meeting and she was late for it and so was I, which was perfect. Come to find she studied acting at The New School but couldn’t find roles because of how she looked. We auditioned her, she did an improvisation piece, and I decided that despite the gamble of working with an unknown, that if we don’t cast HER we won’t do the movie.
After a week of rehearsals with her and Amari, they got along well and hung out together and he got to know her friends I knew that this was the best decision. Amari was looking for something culturally to do in New York since he studied here at Julliard but then went to California to work, but wanted a reason to return. It was serendipitous.
CJ: Having Lyle and Nina’s obsession be the thing that comes between them, in this case being something some may deem as trivial but others see as very significant to their lives – weed – is pretty unconventional. Do you know couples like them or are they an amalgam of others or purely original?
SK: It’s a ton of people in those characters: Me, my friends, my girlfriend, my ex-girlfriends - a gamut of people I know.
CJ: Tell me a little about your upbringing. You’re born and raised in Brooklyn right? From your screenplay’s dialogue I can tell you’re from the area. One of your characters called the street Marcus Garvey Boulevard by its former name Sumner Avenue. Only loyalists or old folks usually do that just as half my neighbors further east in Bedford-Stuyvesant still call Malcolm X Boulevard by Reid Avenue. Why was it important for you to maintain those specifics?
SK: So many reasons. Obviously being from here, but for me not enough people born and bred from New York make shows set here. Generally speaking, the media’s portrayal is good narratively speaking, but it’s mostly an outsider perspective. I decided if I do this, I have to bring my wealth of knowledge to the table. And I’m from here – it’s how I talk. And as a director I listen to people talk. It’s important to me to get the vernacular right. As a director everything I do needs to be right. I’m writing something right now where a bulk of the story takes place in Arizona and I know I have to go there to get the script, to get the dialogue, right. Little specific things grab the attention of an audience member. Take the bodega scene, where someone not from here can be transported someplace very specific. I didn’t just want [Lyle] to go into the shop to buy a bag of chips. I wanted it to feel like a real place.
New York movies in particular take place in a real place but also a made up place as well. I wanted to play with those elements and add to those as well. I was born here and I don’t really remember the 1980’s consciously, but one of the things I do remember is going to 42nd street theaters with my aunt and remembering rats in the theater. Yet most of what I recall is from watching movies like Taxi Driver and knowing that’s that part of New York. The Brooklyn that’s in the movies now is probably not going to be there anymore – it’s [turning into] a totally different city. So I wanted to sort of bring that old New York back.
CJ: Though it can be labeled a dark comedy, your film is hilarious, punctuated by key moments from your leads but also from Isiah Whitlock Jr, Tonya Pinkins, and Anthony Chisholm – three truly underrated actors. How was it working with them all?
SK: It was great. I worked with Chis on this short I made in 2009 (Cocoa Loco) so it was easy directing him. I was easy working with all of them because they’re all so professional. The thing with good casting is you can just sit back and watch. If I hit upon something really good with them, I try to build upon that. But you really just need them to do interesting stuff with each take, which they all did.
CJ: Not to give away any more spoilers, but where’d you find that little-ass jacket for Lyle to wear after his rough night of weed.
SK: My costume designer Chay. Charlese Jones. I knew I wanted a pink Baby Phat jacket that was too small to take off and you wondered how it got on. She cut off the sleeves and then Velcro-ed them back on. She’s actually my former roommate so I knew her style and her skills. Once I knew the movie would get made I she was always the person I wanted to be in charge of the [costume] department.
CJ: Final question. You previously mentioned your producer, the actor Gbenga Akinnagbe, who is having a banner year of accomplishments himself. How did he come on as a producer for the film?
SK: I met him at my [script] reading that IFP (Independent Feature Project) put together in which Gbenga read for Lyle. That’s where I met Adrian Martinez also [who plays Hernan]. My friend knew him as well and told me that Gbenga is passionate and would really be a person to help you make this film happen. Once we spoke come to find he loved the script and wanted to come on board. He said he could do a lot of the things we needed, especially being instrumental in getting us actors, if he could come on board as a producer. And he did.
NEWLYWEEDS, directed by Shaka King and starring Amari Cheatom, Trae Harris, Hassan Johnson, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Tonya Pinkins, Anthony Chisolm, Tone Tank and Colman Domingo makes its theatrical premierE tonight at NYC’s Film Forum and at Crenshaw 15 and Rave 18 in Los Angeles.
For NYC tickets go to the Film Forum website. Tickets for the 8:20pm screening with Shaka King, Gbenga Akinnagbe and actor Hassan Johnson is sold out.
See the trailer again: