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Sundance 2019 Interview: Julius Onah on Luce

Questions of identity, power and perception are smartly absorbed and considered in “Luce”, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday in the US Dramatic Competition section. Director Julius Onah, who co-wrote the screenplay with J.C. Lee (in an adaptation of Lee’s stage play), says he was never interested in judging the characters or making a didactic film in telling the story of the black teenager Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and his white adoptive parents Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) as they grapple with certain allegations brought on to their star-student son by an over-concerned teacher named Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer).

A sophisticated drama that engages with timely themes around race, class, sexism and sexual trauma, and morphs into a subtle psychological thriller of sorts, “Luce” is more concerned with raising questions for smart audiences instead of providing neat answers for them. We recently sat down with Onah to discuss his latest film, currently seeking distribution at the festival.

What we bring to a movie as the audience always counts, but I felt like, in “Luce”, it counted for a little bit more. You play a lot with certain perceptions, presumptions or assumptions one might have. It was fascinating to see the movie operate on those two planes; what’s on the screen and what I, as an audience member, thought I knew about those characters. I just kept questioning myself.

It was something that came on a couple of different levels. First, it was in the writing. We worked really hard to make sure that, as we were telling the story, we weren't judging the characters. And that, as we were giving you information, as you were learning about these people, comes in a way that it's very carefully laid out but also feels organic. And then that there would be moments to build an expectation and then subvert that expectation in terms of what people would do. A big part of it was in the camera as well. 

The film plays in long takes, uses a more objective camera, and holds back a little bit as opposed to constantly asking the audience to feel this or feel that for a specific person, so that you just have time to take these people in. And then, as a result of not being told what you should feel about that one way or another, then you start questioning it when new bits of information come in. I wanted the movie to feel elegant and be great to look at, but then also not be something where the camera or the music or the performances became didactic. 

“Luce” was first a play by your co-writer J.C. Lee. What felt cinematic to you about it? How did you two get together to work on a film adaptation? 

I never saw the play. I was working on another movie in Los Angeles and I got a call from Imagine Entertainment and Brian Grazer there to take a look at this script they had written. That was written by J.C. Lee and I had never heard of him before. They sent me a writing sample, which was a play. When I read the play, I jumped on the movie just because I was like, "This play is fantastic!" It had that same sense of ambiguity and mystery and it was actually probably better to get to see it on text as opposed to seeing another director's interpretation of it. It just reminded me of the filmmakers who I really look up to. Everybody from Michael Haneke to Götz Spielmann; a lot of filmmakers who I think explore moral and social issues in a really complicated way. Even some early movies of Spike Lee as well. I just felt like, "Okay, there's an opportunity here to make something, influenced by those films, but hopefully make it my own thing as well.

When was this, when did you read the script?

I read the play in 2014.

A very different time politically.

Yeah. Very different time.

I mean; the themes and topics of the movie aren't new all of a sudden. These issues existed in 2014, too. But maybe they carry a little more significance and urgency today than they did back then. Did your journey as a writer and filmmaker shift or evolve over the years, in the way you engaged with the material? 

As you said, these issues have always been here, and I think they've just been right underneath the surface. And, obviously, when you have somebody like Barack Obama as president, the symbolic power of that is something that gives people a lot of hope that we're moving forward. And if Hillary's presidency came in, we'd be in a completely different place. We would continue to feel like we're having that march forward, but I don't think these issues would have gone away. Perhaps the tenor of the conversation would've been a little bit different.

And I think it was the right decision to [not] fundamentally try to change anything drastic about the play other than the organic adaptation from one format to another. The last thing I wanted was to be sensational or feel like, "Okay, we're going to capitalize on this movement." Because that was never the intention [behind] making the movie. The intention was just to be honest about things that affect my life, my family's life, my friends' life, and “people-I-care-about”s life.

It's interesting, obviously, now that we're living in a very different world with Trump, [certain] elements of the film are going to resonate differently, but I think those core questions are the same. And that's where it was always driving us because we were just passionate about these kinds of characters and these issues, regardless.

The relationship between Octavia Spencer's character and Kevin Harrison Jr's character is a really complex one. I mean, on one hand, I really sympathize with him because he wants to be free from the obligation to be perfect. But I see her point of view in pushing Luce, too—she's a person of a different era. 

It's a real conversation that I think we're having now on a number of different levels. If you look at the generation that somebody like Harriet is coming from, it was just a very different way to deal with social justice. If you were black, well, you know what? It's about being colorblind. You look at what's happening in the military now, what was happening in the '90s with Clinton, if you were gay, well, "Don't ask, don't tell." And I think what was really interesting for me, and just looking at younger people today, there's a freedom that they want to have.

They're saying, "If your generation was fighting hard for us to have the opportunity to be human, then we need to be able to experience the full spectrum of humanity. And I know you're trying to protect us, but if we're not going to take that next step from the step that you took, which was a step forward from the people before you as well. How are we going to make progress?" And there's no easy answer to that question. I don't have the answer to it. And if I did, I don't think I would have wanted to make this movie. I think it's such a worthwhile, dangerous and delicate conversation, that I really wanted to make this movie and tell the story.

[Harriett’s] is a tough-love mentality: "Look, I know you kids want to be able to express yourself this way, but the world might not accept that." It's a heartbreaking thing for me as well because I've dealt with versions of that too, both with my parents. It was something that when we would rehearse scenes Octavia and Kelvin and I would talk about. And Naomi and Kelvin and I would talk about. And I think it's also just a big part of the conversation we're having right now across this country on every level, on every spectrum of my identity. It's also on the basis of class. Luce is an immigrant. I'm an immigrant to this country. I didn't move here until I was 10. I think we're going to continue to be in this very heated moment if we can't find a way to start having honest conversations about what's going on. 

How did you cast Kelvin Harrison Jr. to play Luce? I loved him in “It Comes At Night” too.

My background is in theater. I studied theater for my first degree and I grew up all over the world. My sister lives in England and she married a Brit and I traveled a lot. You look at Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, and John Boyega. There are so many great young actors of the African Diaspora who are growing up in England and Australia and all these other places. And I assume that, because there's a very specific theater tradition in some of those countries that we would find somebody from there. We did a casting call and we were getting things from all over the world. And one of the tapes that came in was Kelvin’s, and then his agent had reached out to our casting director, and he and I had breakfast and, I just always want to be open minded. I knew nothing about him. We went and we talked for 30 minutes. He seemed like a sweet guy. And then his tape came in and I was like, "Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa! Who the hell is this kid?" And he just blew me away. He's such a good guy and I'm so proud of him because he worked really hard.

How did you help him internalize Luce’s back-story? It’s a complicated one.

We talked about everything. I love the process of building a character and I knew with something like this, because he's such a specific type, it would have to be built. And one of the first things I did with him was, he came over to my office when I was in LA and we started working on dialect. How does this kid talk? I'm originally from Nigeria, so there was a guy who I knew was a Nigerian-American. I hired a dialect coach and he recorded that guy speaking and then he started helping shape the dialect for Luce.

We would work on his body language; we would work on his posture. I was a debater in high school as well. So I brought the podium in and he and I would meet and I'd tell him, "This is the posture, this is how you carry yourself professionally." And then in terms of just the ideology of the character, I had him read several Frantz Fanon books, philosopher and psychiatrist and postcolonial thinker. Kelvin read those books. He actually wrote the paper in the movie and Octavia graded it. It’s the paper he's holding in the film. That was just a portion of living the character. 

And then the other thing I did was, I tried to find models that I think were similar to what Luce has to do and the idea of being somebody who's black in a prominent position. Because he's prominent in his community, in America and walking a fine line between being acceptable to people who aren't black, but then also being authentic to people who are black. And I felt Barack Obama, obviously is a massively transformative figure and Will Smith was I think, the first black major superstar—you can go to China, you can go to Nigeria, you can go to Germany, and people embrace him the same way they embrace Tom Cruise and other stars like that. So I had him look at the performative quality of those types of people, the way they're able to engage in public with people in a way that is nonthreatening and feels authentic and joyful, and use that to be one side of Luce. 

I want to talk a little bit about Luce's parents' journey. They are definitely liberal, well-intentioned people but they both handle the allegations against Luce differently. It also made me turn a mirror to myself and ask, “What would I have done?” 

I grew up with people like that. The movie is set in Arlington, Virginia, which is where I moved to when I was 10 years old. Especially being here with parents who weren't American, so much of what I had to learn was from other people's friends, from friends' parents. Or also from teachers. And then, these were all people who have the right liberal values, they are open minded and progressive, but they're not perfect. They're messy. And what I find, and I think it happens to me as well when I'm put in a situation that I'm uncomfortable, there's a defensiveness that sometimes just automatically snaps up. I could recognize a version of myself in those parents too. We're all struggling to grapple with the world that is changing so fast when it comes to how identity is defined, and when it comes to recognizing who has power and who has privilege. It’s really fucking hard. And I just wanted the humanity of these people. I have no interest in telling the story just to villain-ize them. I love Amy. I think she's an incredible character and trying to be an incredible person, even though she might do things that you and I might not like.

Honestly speaking, the ex-girlfriend character and her choices in the end is probably the only thing that I struggled with. But maybe her reaction is a coping mechanism too. Maybe she doesn't want to be victimized.

What happened to Stephanie Kim is terrible, but she's also a 17-year-old girl. And much like Luce who does not want to be put in this box on a symbolic level, [she might think], “Why do I have to be the perfect symbol of victimhood?” I think what she does is complicated and messy, but these young people are still in progress. Stephanie and Luce and DeShaun, they're all living that dichotomy and it's really hard. And having lived a version of it myself, it's really confusing and painful and, sometimes, especially when you're still 17, you don't know how to react. It's tricky and it's tough, but I felt it's also probably the most truthful thing.

I tried to be very thorough with everything I do. We did a lot of friends and family screenings where we brought all different kinds of people. We brought women of color, between J.C. and I; I'm originally from Africa, grew up in Asia and in Europe and moved here when I was 10. J.C. is part black, part Italian, part Chinese, and gay. So we brought every walk of life into the room. But what was interesting is, there were a number of Asian-American women in their 20s, who came up to us afterwards and they were just like, "Thank you so much for making a Stephanie Kim character, somebody who looked like me but just wasn't only the stereotype of the victimized girl." I wouldn't even say that we overtly were trying to do that. We just wanted to make characters that felt honest to people like us, and the people we knew.

With your previous movie, “The Cloverfield Paradox”, you went the Netflix route and the film was in everyone’s living rooms at the same time. Now with “Luce”, you’re 180-degrees on the opposite end of the spectrum. You’re starting traditionally, with a festival like Sundance and seeking distribution. I'm wondering what you make of those two very different pathways as a filmmaker. 

It's confusing and so complicated. I love movies. We shot “Luce” on 35mm. Larkin Seiple is a really talented DP. So, that process of telling the story, it's just so important to me. When I saw “Roma”, I was like; "I'm not watching it at home." I had to come into the IFC Center and wait in line and got my ticket. But there was a long line; I just remember a long line. I had to see it in the theater, [because] that's the way I fell in love with movies. And that's the way I always want to experience movies first. Even “Mandy”, I know that was on VOD at the same time, but I had to go see it in a theater. But the world is changing. For some kinds of movies that might not be able to be created any other way, what Netflix is offering is obviously very valuable. For a story like “Luce”, I feel like part of the experience of it is being uncomfortable with a group of people you might not know. And sharing that experience and then processing that. Cinema is about that communal experience and it's something that I always want to see preserved. But then I just recently saw “Shirkers”, which I loved. I thought it was terrific. And I was like, "Thank God for Netflix." So, again, I totally see the value of it. I hope the “Roma”s of the world are movies that we still get to see in theaters. And I think that's the thing that makes me the most conflicted.

What are you ideally seeking in a distributor who might be interested in “Luce”? 

I want it to be somebody who really believes in the film, and believes in the questions that the film is trying to ask. And believes and respects the audience enough to receive it. I really wanted to respect the audience, treat them within intelligence. Sometimes from a creative and/or distribution standpoint, people get taken for granted. I think there is a smart audience out there that wants to grapple with these types of ideas in a way that is messy and complicated. And I really want to find the right partner who's committed to that. Everybody; Octavia, Naomi, Tim, Kelvin, the whole crew was just in it for the right reasons. We were very lucky to have just an incredibly diverse group of people. Most of our department heads were people of color and women. Everybody came in really caring about the questions the story wanted to ask. I would want a distributor who can continue that spirit.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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