When Cord Jefferson‘s American Fiction premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), it came into that Northern festival with a bang, winning the coveted People’s Choice Award, and marking the introduction of a brave new voice and vision in filmmaking.
Granted, Jefferson had already won an Emmy for his writing on HBO‘s Watchmen, but American Fiction is very much his directorial debut, having gone from journalism directly into writing for shows like The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Master of None, and The Good Place.
American Fiction stars Jeffrey Wright as Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, a disgruntled author who writes serious fiction, but who can’t seem to catch a break while other black authors are thriving by tapping into what white publishers think liberal white readers expect. To counter this, Ellison makes up a new escaped convict persona and writes more of a “black novel” that actually sells for a lot of money, furthering his consternation. At the same time, Monk is also dealing with family drama, including a mother (the great Leslie Uggams) suffering from dementia who needs to be put into expensive assisted living, a troubled recently-outed brother (played by Sterling K. Brown), as well as his new love interest (Erika Alexander) from across the street of Monk’s family beach house. Jefferson’s brilliant cast around Wright also includes Tracee Ellis Ross, Issa Rae, John Ortiz, Adam Brody, and even the great Keith David.
Above the Line spoke with Jefferson a few weeks ago, not only about how he came to adapt Percival Everett‘s novel, Erasure, into American Fiction, but how he dealt with the film’s unique blend of social satire and drama.
Above the Line: It’s always nice to talk to a former journalist, who made good and managed to escape that life.
Cord Jefferson: Oh, man. I don’t know if I made good. I think maybe I went to the dark side. [laughs]
ATL: I saw this at TIFF, and the night before the press screening, Variety‘s Clayton Davis, set this was the best directorial debut he’d seen in decades… so yeah, no pressure there. But I went in not knowing anything about the book, so how did you find it and start to pursue it as your directorial debut after directing Watchmen and other shows?
Jefferson: It was entirely just a passion project. I read this book in December of 2020, and fell in love with it almost instantly, and went to Percival Everett, who wrote the novel Erasure and asked him for the rights. He gave me the rights for free for six months, and he said, “Go write a script, and if you end up selling the script, you can settle up with me then,” so I did that. This is the first thing that I’ve ever really written for film or television that’s just purely a passion project. It wasn’t some assignment that somebody had given me. It wasn’t because somebody said, “We want to develop a show around this kind of family.” I just read this book, and it resonated with me deeper than any piece of art had before or since. I just saw a lot of myself in it, and I just felt inspired to try to put it into the world.
ATL: Considering that the novel was written in 2011, it’s amazing that things were still connecting when you read it in 2020. When you went looking for financing, did you have to sell yourself to direct it as well?
Jefferson: I just said, “It’s a package deal.” I let people know, “If you like the script, then you have to take me as a director. I won’t listen to anybody who says we love the script. Now let’s go see what Barry Jenkins is doing.” I just didn’t want to fall into that trap, so I just said that it’s a package deal. “If you like the script, I got to do it.” I think that scared some people away, but I was very fortunate to find some people for whom that wasn’t a con. In fact, the people that I found to work on the movie with were kind of excited by my inexperience, because they were excited about helping a new voice break through.
ATL: Percival definitely put a lot of faith in you and must have known some of your TV work to even give you the rights for six months. Did he stay involved as a producer as well? Did you have any conversations with him about his intentions in writing the book ever?
Jefferson: When we first spoke, he asked me why I was passionate about the project. He asked me who I intended to cast. He asked me what the tone I was going for was, but for the most part, he wasn’t really creatively involved after that first conversation. He gave me the rights, and then he asked to read the script before he would sign off on the rights. He read the script – which was a terrifying – and then, once we were done shooting the film, I showed him an early cut. Other than that, he really never had any creative input. I was just showing him the steps along the way, and very fortunately, after he saw the film for the first time, he said, “The thing that I really love about it is that you made it your own. You used my book as a starting point, but you ultimately arrived at something that feels like a unique piece of art unto itself.” And that that meant the world to me.
ATL: There’s no denying that you have a killer cast in this, starting with Jeffrey Wright. Was he one of the first actors you thought of to play Monk?
Jefferson: He was the only person I thought of. Jeffrey Wright was the very first person I went to when the script was done, and when he signed on, it really legitimized the project in people’s eyes. The financiers were willing to come up with more money, other actors were very excited to get on the project, because they get to work with Jeffrey Wright. It just all kind of coalesced around Jeffrey coming aboard.
ATL: Did the rest of the cast fall into place pretty quickly after that, once you had Jeffrey on board and a final script?
Jefferson: The thing that the actors kept telling me is that, once they read the script, they knew pretty instantly that they wanted to be involved. The reality is that a lot of black actors aren’t offered very substantial roles. We talk about it every year, that a lot of black actors feel like they’re left out in the cold when it comes to getting real meaty parts that they can sink their teeth into. I think that’s one of the things that really inspired a lot of the cast that we ended up getting was that they felt like, “Oh, I’m actually playing a real, lived-in, nuanced, complex, layered human being instead of just a stereotype who’s there to serve as window dressing and kind of wallpaper while everybody else gets the real rolls up front. I felt very, very fortunate when we got the people we got, because it made my job a million times easier.
ATL: Since the book was written 2001, when you read it in 2020 – a year when there was a lot of stuff happening in our country – was it obvious what you might have to make more relevant to modern day audiences?
Jefferson: No, no. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have to modernize much. These are conversations that have been going on for decades. I had an actor that we auditioned – she was a woman in her 70s – and before her audition, she said, “I’d just like to tell you something. I can’t believe that they’re letting you make this movie.” And I said, “Why is that?” And she said, “Because I’ve been working in this industry for over 50 years, and for over half a century, these are the issues that we’ve been talking about and complaining about these things. It is shocking to me that they’re actually letting you say this stuff in public.”
To me, the suggestion there is that this is a conversation that’s been going on for long before I was even alive. So that unfortunately, I didn’t have to do much to modernize it. In fact, there were things that I tried to do, and the only thing that really focused on to not modernize it. I took great pains to not show Zoom screens; I wanted to avoid showing Zoom at all on camera. I’m sick of staring at Zoom in my own personal life, let alone when I go to watch movies. There were actually things that I wanted to do to make it feel like something that could exist 50 years from now, and somebody wouldn’t be able to say like, “Oh, they shot that movie in 2022, because here’s the hallmark of movies that were shot then.” If anything, I was doing stuff to make it feel like you couldn’t tell what year it was shot, because I think that it is the kind of story that can live beyond its initial premiere.
ATL: I spoke to Reginald Hudlin recently, who has a 30-year career as a filmmaker. He’s known for his comedy but also has directed dramas, so I asked him which was tougher to direct: comedy or drama. Your movie is an interesting case, since it’s a social satire, but there’s also some serious family drama, so you’re mixing the two things. As a writer and director, how do you work with the actors to make the film flow from one tone to another?
Jefferson: Striking the right tone for the film obviously was deeply important to me and finding the correct mixture of levity and drama and heart and edge. Trying to find the right balance of those things is incredibly important. As far as whether something’s going to be comedy or drama, my favorite stuff is both, because that’s what my life is. Life is both comedy and drama, frequently in the same day. I wanted to make sure that the film reflected the reality of life. I agree with Reggie that comedy is harder, and I think that one of the reasons comedy is harder is because it’s far more subjective. What people find funny is harder to pin down.
Somebody’s mother dying is something that we can all understand as being sad. There’s kind of a universally, “Oh, this is sad when that happens.” It’s difficult to find something that people find universally funny; I think that is harder. I think that capturing the senses of humor of a broad range of people is harder than sort capturing the sentimental or sad emotions of people. I don’t want to put words into Reginald’s mouth, but that, to me, is sort of what I think he may be saying when he says that.
I really wanted to make this feel like it was inviting to a lot of different kinds of people. I wanted a lot of different people to feel seen or feel like they’re watching something that resonates with them for at least some reason. I try to involve comedy and drama that really felt like it spoke to the breadth of humanity, as opposed to a specific kind of person. I didn’t want this to be a movie that was made for people in New York and LA, to go to the arthouse cinema and feel like they are elite, because they get to understand this film and other people don’t. That was something that I wanted to avoid. I tried to make something that felt like a big tent and everybody’s invited in, and hopefully, everybody can find something that they enjoy once they’re in the theater.
ATL: Did you do a test screening process at all? Did you play it for different audiences before it premiered at TIFF?
Jefferson: We did one test screening. After we had a couple cuts, we tested it once. We were supposed to do another test screening, but the initial test screening went so well that we just went back to finish the movie.
American Fiction opens in select cities on Friday, Dec. 15, and then expands into more cities on Dec. 22.
We also had a question for Jefferson that contains a minor spoiler about one of the characters, so SPOILERS!
ATL: I love Tracee Ellis Ross in this, and I was kind of upset that she died, so was that also something from Percival’s book?
Jefferson: It is in the book, but in the book, she’s actually murdered, which is a much darker death in the book. The book is darker in a few ways, and I knew that I wanted to make the movie a little bit more buoyant, so I felt like it was important that the sister died, but I didn’t think that it was important that the sister was murdered.