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You Have to Be Smart to Survive: Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal on Blindspotting

I first saw Carlos López Estrada’s Sundance hit, “Blindspotting,” during the week ABC cancelled its highest-rated show, “Roseanne,” after racist statements were posted on Twitter by its leading lady. Not long before that, the “Yanny or Laurel” controversy had swept the nation, illuminating how sound frequencies could place our comprehension in an alternate reality. That notion of how the blind spots hard-wired into us shape our understanding of the world and oftentimes fuel our prejudices is a major theme of “Blindspotting”’s remarkable script co-authored by its leads, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. The duality of Rubin’s Vase (an optical illusion that shows either a vase or faces in silhouette, depending on how you look at it) is mirrored in the opening credits, juxtaposing two very different perspectives of modern-day Oakland via split-screen—one defined by the history of generations, the other by Whole Foods and gentrification. 

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Diggs plays Collin, a young man whose final three days of probation are endangered by the volatility of his best friend, Miles (Casal). Having served a prison term for committing a crime that was triggered by Miles, Collin hopes to begin his life anew, while possibly rekindling his relationship with ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar, friend of Meghan Markle). Yet when Collin observes a man being fatally shot in the back by a police officer, Collin’s rage at systemic injustice threatens to boil to the surface. In one of the year’s most breathtaking cinematic moments, Diggs delivers a monologue of scathing poetry, encouraging all souls prone to bigotry to “see the faces, leave the vases.”

During a press tour last month, Diggs and Casal spoke with RogerEbert.com about their meticulous approach to sound design, their seamlessly stylized dialogue and why having intelligent characters is a politically charged statement.

When I interviewed Daveed last fall about his role in “Wonder,” he told me that one of the reasons he was attracted to the project was the director’s insistence on viewing the same events from multiple perspectives, an approach that is also integral to “Blindspotting.”

Rafael Casal (RC): The idea was to give every character their version of what was right in their mind. Early on, there are moments with Val where the audience is made to be pitted against her, and we make sure to eventually come around to her perspective, as well as the perspective of Miles’s girlfriend, Ashley. Even for Miles and Collin, it was necessary to have those moments. We liked the idea that it was messy and complex, because that is usually how perspective works.

Daveed Diggs (DD): I am attracted to art that doesn’t present itself as an authority. As an artist presenting a piece of art, you have to be aware of your own blind spots. I think I am attracted to art where woven into the fabric of the thing is this fractured perspective, this idea that there are many ways to look at this thing that you are watching right now.

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Your portrayal of the film’s inciting incident—the brawl outside the bar—is twofold: we first see it from a comedic angle, where the clueless white victim is dubbed “Portlandia,” and then from a tragic angle, as we hear the man echo Eric Garner’s cries of “I can’t breathe.” 

DD: We do so much work early on to ensure that everyone can feel the world from Collin’s perspective, where we understand a lot of his reasoning for everything and for all of his choices. To present that moment in a way that is comedic allows you to really watch it without judging him initially. Then all of a sudden, you get to see the moment play out from Val’s perspective, in order for the audience to understand much more about her feelings, and also about the nature of this crime. If we’ve done our job right, this shift occurs without the audience realizing it. By the end of the film, you are rooting for a felon convicted of a violent crime, who maybe doesn’t get a lot of second glances in real life. We did a lot of work in the script to try and underscore Collin’s humanity and make sure that his entire self was represented. He is not only the crime that he committed, and even from one perspective, the crime is hilarious if you think about it.

RC: Our intention was to make the entire theater be on his side for most of that fight. Everyone in the room hates the hipster and thinks that Miles is being funny and the fire is entertaining. That flip on the perspective regarding the violence, depending on how we are encouraged to feel about it, matters. It shows how easily you can get swept up in a point of view if it favors your beliefs or is playing to your intuitive nature. We are giving you comedy, and so you are responding to the comedy, same as when you are watching the news. If the newscasters tell you that a person is a villain, you will treat them like a villain. The same trick that is happening in the film is what’s happening on the news every day.

A key example of this would be how, during the newscast, the shooting victim is seen only in his mugshot, whereas the cop who shot him is viewed in uniform.

DD: That’s an example of Rafael and I attempting to be honest about what’s happening in the world. When you are writing a film, it’s so tempting to lean in to one thing or another—to sort of lean away from the honesty of the situation because it might make for a better story. That manipulative approach is different from how we are being manipulative, to an incredible degree, throughout this film. Our particular brand of manipulation was driven by the premise of, “What if we don’t ignore the real world? Can this buddy comedy exist in the actual world, and at what point does it stop being a comedy? At what point does a pretty straightforward buddy comedy fall apart when you don’t ignore the reality of the situation?”

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RC: Most comedies, at some point, get earnest. It’s only a matter of time before a comedy descends into an earnest moment of truth. The hero will chase after somebody in an airport, or there will be a complication during the birth of a baby, and suddenly the funny people are sad. Daveed and I love the juxtaposition of humor and sadness in that context. There is always a super-sad or dark moment. That is the nature of great comedy, and I don’t think we defied convention as much as people have claimed. We just paired the genres in a way that tonally or subject matter-wise hasn’t really been done before. Perhaps it feels different when it involves a political issue that is very polarizing.

I found the tonal shifts and lyrical dialogue in “Blindspotting” to be so much more seamless and assured than they were in a picture like Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq.” 

DD: We’re doing different things than Spike. “Chi-Raq” was an adaptation of a Classical Greek comedy, so the way he was attempting to use poetry was already forced. It was a forced situation that was meant to draw attention to the fact that the dialogue was poetry and not prose. We are doing the exact opposite. We’re trying to make you forget that you are listening to verse, but still have it function in the same way where it forces you to hear the important things and as a result, you sit forward a little bit in your chair. The writing is different, yes, but the biggest difference is in terms of performance. Carlos also played a big role in helping it feel natural when people are reciting verse but performing it as text. Rafael and I grew up doing that, so we’ve had a lot of practice. In many ways, the film is a reflection of how we grew up interacting with language. That is a big thing in the Bay Area, so we were really just trying to show off what we can do.

I particularly loved when Miles tells Val, “I am as moved by your greeting as you are moved by an elliptical.”

RC: [laughs] I’m always so disappointed that the line doesn’t get a bigger laugh. 

DD: It gets buried in the mix. I think about that line a lot too. 

RC: It’s a joke that takes a couple seconds to register, and by the time it does, it’s more of an internal laugh. It’s a headier joke where you are like, “Oh, because an elliptical doesn’t move…” [laughs] But what I love about that line is it gives you a sense of the character’s vocabulary. One thing Daveed and I talked about a lot is how important it was for all of our characters to be really intelligent people. The Bay’s a very well-read place. A lot of the parents are very educated, whether traditionally or nontraditionally, and that savviness, that sophistication also coexists with the norm of city life and street culture. It doesn’t change it, it just gives it this nuance. That is a very heady joke for Miles to make and in any other movie, It would feel so strange for the street dudes to reference an elliptical as a joke in passing.

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DD: It doesn’t feel strange in our experience growing up and I think we set up Miles and everyone else in this movie enough that you buy it.

RC: Their intelligence has this broad stroke to it that allows you to watch them process things much faster, which also enables the verse. You know that they’re quick, witty and clever, but you don’t have a good sense of what their knowledge base is. You really just know a little bit about their behavioral flaws and not necessarily the limits of their intellect. For all we know, in every moment we don’t see him on camera, Collin sits around reading all day. There were versions of the script where that was the case. Miles and Ashley watch the news every night, and as younger people, that is not as common.

DD: I think it’s a politically left statement to not have stupid people in our work. We are existing in a world where there is this normalizing of ignorance, which is dangerous and actually untrue. That’s not how people are. I don’t know very many stupid people in my life, certainly not among disenfranchised people because it is hard to live that way. This normalizing of people being uninformed is dangerous because it presents it as okay, whereas that’s contrary to our survival mechanisms. You have to be smart to survive.

The line, “F—k Alfred Hitchcock,” which the character of Mama Liz (Tisha Campbell-Martin) exclaims, also stood out to me. 

RC: Tisha improvised that, that was all her. 

DD: Following it up with her misnaming of M. Night Shyamalan was so, so funny to us, and it’s so honest. 

RC: “F—k Alfred Hitchcock” may have actually been in the script, but the Shyamalan line definitely was not. [laughs]

Hitchcock’s fear of policemen and signature theme of the “man wrongly accused” also reverberate throughout “Blindspotting,” epitomized by the shot of Collin’s face illuminated by the police light, forever under surveillance. 

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DD: I looked at a ton of movies during our last rewrite, and I re-watch Hitchcock films all the time. That stuff is always percolating through my ideas

RC: I watched a lot of Kubrick as well. Daveed and I were being very intentional about the moments of horror, using some of the familiar tropes of suspense. We talked about how the cop coming around the corner should feel like the shark in “Jaws.” That’s how we described it, and sound design-wise, we were like, “This is how that moment needs to feel.” We need to feel as though the predator is here. That is the lived experience, and that is the point-of-view we want to give the audience.

DD: And I think it is, in part, about leaning into things that we’re used to in movies because that’s how we know how to react to them. We put so much work into making people empathize with Collin, and a good way to put folks in his shoes is to present them with the kind of scare that they are familiar with as moviegoing people, as people who consume stuff this way. They feel Collin in that moment, and start to think, ‘Oh s—t, something terrible is about to happen…’

How involved were you both in the film’s extraordinarily visceral sound design?

RC: We were deeply involved from the beginning. All of those rhythmic musical refrains and elements to design Collin’s PTSD were originally in the script and decided on before we shot the film. 

DD: We set the tempo months before we started shooting with members of my band Clipping. We did some rough passes on sound design elements, and though very little of that stuff got used, we recorded to them. When we performed the scenes, we had clicks in our ear. For the scene toward the end where Collin is in basement, I had that beeping sound in my ear to keep in line with the rhythm.

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RC: I had a similar click in my ear during the dream sequence set in the courtroom. We knew super-super early on that both the score and the sound design were going to be essential in tracking Collin’s descent. We knew those PTSD moments were going to ramp up and climax in some of our final scenes, and that everything would have to get threaded back throughout the entire film, so we have alternating start points of when we learn about them, such as car horns or other sounds. We also had to make sure that the sounds were accurate in relation to where the characters were in Oakland, because we knew that people from the area would intuitively know if we had gotten something wrong.

DD: Getting to mix in Dolby Atmos was an extra sort of bonus after we received their grant. We worked with their artists while sitting on Michael Bay’s mixing stage and got to make adjustments like, “Can we throw that train noise back into the right because we know where this house is in relation to the actual train tracks in Oakland?” Coming from music, that was the sort of stuff that we were obsessed with. I am super-proud of the sound design in this film, and next time we do a movie, we’ll do more. We’ll actually start that process way earlier. I think there’s so much more we could’ve done. 

RC: Even when we were doing our web series [“Hobbes and Me”], sound design was always our favorite part of the process. That is when everything on the screen comes to life, so when we got to sit in that room, that is where we, as filmmakers in post-production, really got to excel.

DD: That’s the coolest part to me. On my next film, I’m going to have composers onset the whole time. 

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