Compelling drama The Obituary Of Tunde Johnson, which had its world premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival (and screens again tonight at TIFF at 9pm) sees debut screenwriter Stanley Kalu take the now familiar Groundhog Day style time loop structure and use is for riveting and devastating effect to reflect the all too regular incidents of police violence against people of colour in the US.
Director Ali LeRoi’s feature film debut features a stunning central performance from Steven Silver as the titular Nigerian-American character. We follow Tunde during a regular day at high school hanging out with his best friend Marley (Nicola Peltz, demonstrating great range in the role), spending intimate time with his jock boyfriend Soren (Spencer Neville, also excellent) on his birthday and coming out to his parents before being killed at the hands of the LAPD – only to find himself repeating the entire day again with slight changes in his behaviour impacting how events unfold.
Following the world premiere of The Obituary Of Tunde Johnson The Queer Review’s James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with the film’s stars Steven Silver, Spencer Neville and Nicola Peltz as well as screenwriter Stanley Kalu and director Ali LeRoi.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Stanley, this is your first screenplay what were some of inspirations behind writing it?
Stanley Kalu: “I grew up in Nigeria, well I was born there and then I’ve lived all over Africa my whole life and that’s an experience of being in the majority, so when I came to America to go to USC for the first time I was a minority in my life. It was a really dehumanising process because I’d always been Stanley the individual and now I was black first and the monolith of that with all the assumptions that come with that and it made me very depressed. I was really struggling to find self value in a system that was really picking at me. In America I was watching TV and I’m a tall black male and I kept seeing people who looked like me die every day on the news and that chips at you. Systematic violence against people who look like you makes you feel like you’re being hunted, like you’re being chased, like you’re next, there’s an anxiety to that. Back home in Africa queer people die very violently, systematically, we’re talking jailed, stoned on the streets. So I kept seeing this parallel of violence that comes down to identity that you can’t control. And I was nineteen, a sophomore in the USC screenwriting programme, and that’s the year where they have you write your first feature and it kind of all clicked for me in one moment. The only way I can climb out of feelings of real trauma and sadness is to write about it, because I’ve written my entire life so The Obituary of Tunde Johnson was me trying to piece together this true puzzle piece of experience, these fractures that I kept seeing.”
And what about the screenplay structure with the time loop, was that there early on?
Stanley Kalu: “Yes, that was immediate, because that’s what it felt like. I kept seeing it. There’s this thing that I know people of colour feel, that when another person of colour dies you feel like you die. Minorities die every day, so it wasn’t even a far reach for me, it was a true emotional understanding of what it is to be in a body that is brutalised consistently over four hundred years. You understand that it’s deeper and bigger than you and your own body, it’s everyone’s body. And that why it felt like a time loop to me. That’s where that comes from.”
Steven, firstly congratulations on a beautiful performance. What was your initial reaction when you read Stanley’s screenplay and why did you want to throw yourself into this character?
Steven Silver: “Thank you! My initial reaction when I first read it, I guess the best way to describe it is beautiful heartbreak. I also felt a connection to the world, because I felt like if someone who was nineteen could write a script like this that means that feelings that I felt they feel and that means other people who are in the same categories feel the same thing, so to me I felt very inspired.”
And what about the time loop structure from you point of view as the lead actor, how did that affect your approach to the performance?
Steven Silver: “That was difficult, I’m not gonna lie, performance-wise that was quite difficult. I had to prepare how I wanted to approach each loop prior to starting filming, because when we started filming we may be doing you know loop two, one minute and then the next hour we’re on loop four. So you could do three or four different loops in a day which could be quite jarring for acting. But I had the help of Stanley and Ali to keep me on pace. And so we worked it out so that it translated on screen that each loop is different.”
And what about the coming out scene – or scenes rather because we see it multiple times. One thing that connects Tunde’s coming out scenes is how supportive his parents are each time, which I really liked. His mother in one of the sequences is almost immediately trying to set him up with a guy! Could you talk a bit about your approach to that as a writer.
Stanley Kalu: “I understand that imagery and representation is vital and it actually does change lives. For me, I’ve seen countless acts of violence against queer people by parents within the African context. So what I was trying to position was I am going to show you, very literally, I am going to show you that it is possible to love your child for being who they are. Ade struggles with it but he loves his child and that image particularly I think will be very healing to a continent that I truly believe has not done right by the queer community. I was like, I am flipping this on its head and you have to interact with the idea that Nigerian parents can be accepting of their son. My mum was very religious with all the stipulations of that and I saw her opinions change on queerness by watching Ellen every day. Very simply by watching a queer woman dance and be happy and give away stuff, her perspective on it changed year by year, year by year, to the point that she views sexuality as a non-issue. It was just Ellen. So I understand the power of the image that is shown. And that’s what I’m doing with the coming out scenes.”
And what about playing those scenes from your perspective Steven? It’s a hard thing to do in real life and I guess when you’re acting you have to take yourself to that place?
Steven Silver: “So from my perspective, the relationships between parents and children is one where parents often feel ownership over their child’s identity so if the child doesn’t fall into the same identities that they fall into most parents cannot handle that, or they have a very hard time letting that go. At the same time each child as they go through life, they are trying to establish their own identity. That causes a tremendous amount of internal conflict and requires a tremendous amount of bravery to move out of that space and to move into your own. I really tried to capture that conflict on screen in those moments where Tunde is coming out to his parents to try to show that there was bravery in what he was doing to try to show that there was some fear in what he was doing, to try to show that what he was doing was vital to his staying alive. He needed to do that to live as a total person. I hope that came across.”
Before I came out I can remember being on those train journey’s back from London to my hometown and I would have breathing problems that I didn’t experience at any other time, where it was shortness of breath and I found it hard to breathe.
Stanley Kalu: “That’s what it is yes. The moment you’re not being your total self, which is a part fo the film, love yourself in totality or you’re gonna feel it. You feel constricted, like you’re saying. Shortness of breath makes complete sense to me because you’re not being you.”
When we were talking about the time loop structure earlier we touched on the police killings. In one incident there’s a very clear reference to Eric Garner’s death when Tunde says or tries to say ‘I can’t breathe’ and I wondered to what extent you had real incidents in mind for all the scenes of police violence we see depicted in the film?
Stanley Kalu: “Each one is modelled after a real incident and the real tragedy is that there are so many. This time loop could have gone on forever because it continues to go on forever. Yes, so each one is modelled after a real incident that you can look up. If you’ve ever been on the Internet you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s just unfortunate and truly dehumanising. There’s this wonderful monologue in the film where there’s a panel of commentators on the news and the lady on the panel says that it’s ‘genocide’ and that’s what this is and we should call it like it is, this is the same attacks that have been happening on black bodies and the same level of brutalisation that has been happening on black bodies since the country’s inception and we need start addressing it as such and I think the movie presents that idea by focusing on real events that have happened.”
Steven, what about approaching those scenes of Tunde being killed by police? Obviously you have to get the job done as an actor, but those scenes come with a lot of weight.
Steven Silver: “Absolutely, yes. So I did all those scenes, the stunts for them myself and I was handling it OK for the first half of filming, but there was a particular death towards the end that was quite heavy on my body.”
The scene where Tunde is choked by a police officer?
Steven Silver: “Yes, that scene was very heavy on my body because we had to do it multiple times and as the lead actor on set I also wanted to take care of the set and not freak anyone out by having a break down on set, however when I got to my trailer I cried uncontrollably, like literally could not stop crying if I tried to and it was because I knew that there were a lot of people who could not walk away from that you know. They were put in situations that were forced upon them unjustly and couldn’t walk away and I was able to walk away back to my trailer and that was very hard to deal with.”
Stanley Kalu: “Every single black person working that day had to take a break individually. I had a full breakdown in the bathroom because it was too real.”
Steven Silver: “And it’s hard to make a film like this whilst these exact stories are continuing to occur.”
We get to see some touching scenes between Tunde and his boyfriend Soren, played by Spencer Neville who’s brilliant in the film. I love the scene on the beach where they are just laying on each other and the scene of them hugging in bed. There’s no one else around, no prying eyes, they can be completely themselves can’t they?
Steven Silver: “Yeah, absolutely. I think that both characters are aware that they have to find safe spaces for their relationship and I think that’s a large reason why the film is very quiet. You know, with the black identify it’s something that shows up phenotypically so people don’t question the existence of black people, but with queer people, people question even the existence of it. So although black people feel threatened in a lot of spaces and fear comes up a lot for black people in those spaces, but when you add queerness on top of it shame also comes up because they have to wrestle with the idea that people question if they even exist at all. I think this is why those characters need safe spaces and the beach was one of those safe spaces at a time when school is in session so that their peers would not see them.”
And why did you want to incorporate those scenes Stanley, to give them some time alone? There’s definitely real love on both sides in that relationship isn’t there, Soren is not confused when he’s with Tunde.
Stanley Kalu: “At the end of the day this is a love story, very straight on as I was writing it, the central relationship between Soren and Tunde. I think in any intimate space when it’s you and your partner where there’s no one looking at you, you guys can really be together. A lot of African American cinema can be pain porn if you see what I’m saying. But for me this movie is really a celebration of life, any moment is infused with life and joy and humour. I took every opportunity intentionally to show you that life, we’re living it, we’re breathing, we are happy, we exist. We’re in danger, we’re in danger for sure, and that is real and painful, but having those moments with Soren and Tunde just being together that’s just a part of me really showing you a full life and a fully breathed out human person in Tunde Johnson.”
Ali, what was you initial reaction when you read Stanley Kalu’s screenplay for the first time and why did you want to get involved and make this your feature film debut as director?
Ali LeRoi: “I was like two pages in and I already knew it was something different. It took me several readings to really process it fully, but just as a writer myself I was impressed that in that first page Stanley had presented something unlike anything else I’d read and I hadn’t even gotten to the time loop yet. So I started to work through the material and really started to grasp it and understand where he was coming from. Where we started out versus where we ended up was an incredibly engaging process, really hands-on even up to and into shooting with Stanley always there on set. But just at the outset I was probably five pages in when I felt like this is something good, I’m in.”
And Spencer how about for you as an actor, what was your initial response to the sceeenplay?
Spencer Neville: “My initial reaction was, ‘wow this is a piece of art’. Like the way he wrote this with the loops and everything. I had to read it three times because I was like ‘what the hell just happened?’ and that’s also a thing, when you first see a piece of art you think ‘what the hell is that?’ so that was my initial reaction. But also the characters were so well-written and that’s not something we come across every day as actors who read hundreds of scripts a year. And then on top of that the messages within that script, I thought this is story that needs to be told and I gotta have this job because I want to tell this story.”
Nichola Peltz: “It always starts with the script and Stanley wrote such a beautiful story and every character was surprising. You know, you might think ‘oh, he’s the jock, he should act this way’ or ‘she’s the queen bee or the bitchy girl’, but they all have so many layers to them, whether it’s their insecurities or secrets or whatever it may be and we got to show all that. So I really loved doing that. You know normally you get a character and as an actor I build the whole backstory and sometimes you don’t even see any of it, so it was really nice to be able to show different parts of the character and everyone’s not only one note. Everyone in their life they treat their boyfriend different from their mom and from their dad, they have all these different relationships and I think Stanley did such a beautiful job in capturing the high school world without making it a stereotypical thing.”
Yes, I think the time loop structure really helps build the characters as well, it felt to me like a jigsaw puzzle and a different piece got added every time we saw the character in a different loop.
Ali LeRoi: “In any given moment you get to see these different shadings because sometimes you can glance over a scene and you can get the exposition and the action material that you need to move the story forward, but this is really a story about a full experience that somebody is having. So to be able go into each one of these characters and see these little shadings was great. You know, there’s this one little moment that I love early in the film where Tunde comes to school and Charlie teases him and Soren says to leave him alone and Marley says ‘quit being an asshole’. We see that one time and then we see it a second time, and we see the look on Soren’s face as he has to just grapple with for a hot second, what’s happening to the boy that he loves and he can’t say anything. So it’s wonderful little moments like that where we get to see these tiny little shadings that really kind of help to inform who those people are. We want to create these full characters and when you can know more about them and understand what they’re going through that makes you care about ultimately what happens to them.”
And what did the time loop structure offer for you as a filmmaker Ali, and the challenges of it? And of course that’s one benefit of it, that we get to see these different shadings.
Ali LeRoi: “It’s like with vampires, you’ve got to figure out what your rules are. Because Run Lola Run is out there and Edge of Tomorrow is out there, everybody cites Groundhog Day. People have gone through this time loop structure before and so we have to ask ourselves what are the rules in order to tell the story that we needed to tell. We didn’t have the resources to do the kind of retelling of the story from beginning to end and plus visually that’s kind of boring, we needed to move through the day. We start the story near the end of the day and then we go back to the beginning of the day and then we progressively move through sections of the day, all the way up until there’s a sequence between Soren and Tunde right towards the end. Ideally for me what people may or may not recognise about that sequence is that inside of it there are actually several days. Tunde keeps coming back to this moment, and so the understanding is somehow between him walking away, between Soren walking away from Marley and coming to Tunde and asking him why he is doing what he is doing, we can assume that Tunde dies more times before they actually get inside the house, but we’re not quite sure why. So when we see Tunde repeat a line, that’s another day, and so it’s just the idea that all these gradations can occur and all these various paths are available on the day. What we know is that if one thing changes it can change everything. We don’t necessarily need to know what the thing is. I think audiences are smart enough and have seen this type of film enough times that we can have some invention around that and not pander.”
And it keeps it very interesting, I never had a moment of thinking ‘oh no, not this scene again!’
Ali LeRoi: “You don’t know what’s coming, right. He gets killed in different ways because he did something different.
Spencer Neville: “There are such micro-moments that are different within those scenes. We shot the same scene and every different variation of it in the same day, so it was so cool to see what Steven or Nicola brought in this sequence to the next one and the next one and the next one, and how it would change the way that I responded. So it was such a cool opportunity that we don’t normally get, to basically try the same scene seven different ways time after time. So that was a really cool part of the time loop aspect that I’ve never experienced before.”
Ali LeRoi: “I mean it was fun! It was complicated. For instance, early on in the film Soren’s arm is hurting. We don’t see how it gets hurt until later in the film. But then right after that there’s another moment where it doesn’t get hurt because he never makes it to practice to have that injury.”
Spencer Neville: “And as an actor I had to rely heavily on Ali to keep me straight on that! ‘Does my shoulder hurt right now?!’ That was a lot of fun!”
Nicola Peltz: “I think you just have to be so specific and any little thing can throw something else off since it’s a time loop. So to have that challenge within the script was so fun. It’s like an acting exercise you get to do it a bunch of different ways and it really makes you stay in the moment, which is amazing.”
Spencer Neville: “Well, I mean it evokes a different feeling when the other person does something a little different, it’s just like now we get to see how this gets to play out on a different emotional level or whatever.”
Ali LeRoi: “The scene where Tunde early in the day for the first time tells Nicola’s character that him and Soren are together, he’s like ‘me and Soren are fucking’ and then when it comes to the party later that night, the eyes that Marley is giving to Tunde, woah! She wraps her leg around Soren and is just eyeing him down. It’s like so awful and even in that moment, Soren and Tunde have that last little touch. Those things were really exciting to me, to see them in this battle, and I’m talking about these two best friends Marley and Tunde, because of the things he did earlier in the day and she’s not letting it go, she’s like ‘fuck you earlier, fuck you now, fuck you later! We used to be friends!’”
Yes Nicola, that was fun to watch, we got to see your character be so warm and nice earlier and then I wouldn’t mess with her later on at the party! We touched on this briefly before when we were talking about the shadings of the characters, but we’ve seen a lot of gay best friends and teenage girls at high school relationships, but this seemed a lot richer than we’re used to seeing in high school movies. Could you talk a bit about that, what you enjoyed about the dynamics of their relationship and creating that with Steven?
Nicola Peltz: “Well, the moment I met Steven, honestly I am not making this shit up, I loved him! We bonded right away, he actually lives just walking distance from me. And it was so natural. I remember one of the loops I had to just stop myself from laughing because we were having so much fun and the dialogue felt so natural. But these two kids did essentially grow up together as best friends and Marley is super-accepting and she really wants him to come out to his family because she knows it’s just going to make him a happier person. And when you truly love someone and they’re your best friend you want the bset for that person. So I think when she finds out that Tunde is the one who is causing her all this anxiety and stress and when she keeps trying to open up to Tunde about Soren ‘he’s so hot, why is treating me like this’ and he doesn’t say anything so when she finds out he knew the whole time, it’s the worst when your friend hurts you. It’s like the worst the felling. But I love their relationship so much and I think even when you see in the cafeteria when Steven goes ‘you’re my Solange’ they just have these moments where they are best, best friends, so in the end where se finds out it’s just so heart-breaking on so many levels.”
It’s great to see the true acceptance of Tunde from her as well as his parents when he does come out. Because we get to see him come out so many times, but one consistent thing is that they’re always supportive.
Ali LeRoi: “Its’ difficult, with Tunde’s father he has a very specific experience. He’s thinking about gender and identity through an African lens where living this way can mean certain death, so his concern is not so much about his son’s sexuality as it is about his son’s life. But he doesn’t live in Africa, he lives in America, so he’s able to make this adjustment and be accepting because the stakes aren’t as high. But his fear comes from a lived experience, he knows that there’s a risk in this. With Soren’s father Alfred, on that side of the equation, you know he’s a boisterous, conservative American male, allegedly with all of the privilege that comes along with that. Even though he understands that to be on television and to be as open minded as he thinks he’s trying to be for his audience, what we see is when he’s tasked with being that way in the real world is that he actually exceeds what we believe about him. Boots on the ground, he’s much more liberal, much more engaged and much more caring and loving than we would ever imagine he is on television and we would think it would be the reverse, that he would present as being accepting but in reality he’s not at all. When he sees a black kid being tackled by the police he actually cares. He says to an officer ‘do you know who I am?’ which is another great moment of privilege, you know he believes somehow that who he is as a white man in this moment is going help this kid.”
And could we talk a bit about shooting those moments, so many scenes of Tunde being killed at the hands of the police. What did you want to do with those scenes as a director and what was the practical reality of filming them?
Ali LeRoi: “The last scene at the convenience mart was the one that was the most difficult. Because Steven’s a great actor and the way we shot it, the act in and of itself, you know to strangle someone is a visceral, personal, conscious thing to do: ‘I am going to leave my humanity behind while I attempt to rob someone else of theirs’, so that’s a hard place to go to. Then to be as an artist like ‘let me get into that space and see the most disturbing way I can think of to render this.’ With the first shooting it was a process of presenting something that felt familiar yet visceral and then with the rest of the renderings it was about slowing pulling back from that space. Because that’s what happens with this numbing that we have to these acts, we get a lot more distanced from them. Whether it’s the shooting of a young black man or the murder of children in school. You know it takes a Sandy Hook to smash everybody back into the moment and then we get some distance, some more distance…then Pulse nightclub happens, and we’re back into the moment. And so that was kind of the accordion affect of shooting those things. Creating some distance and then pushing yourself back in. Shooting that last scene was the most difficult, I mean it took a lot out of Steven and myself and a number of other people. We needed a break after we did that.”
And Spencer, there’s one scene where Soren and Tunde are in the car when the police approach them. Could you talk a bit about what that was like for you to shoot?
Spencer Neville: “Yeah, I mean that was the first scene for me where it was very apparent that Soren has no idea that his white privilege within the world is literally gonna get this kid killed. First all sitting next to these guns that are going off and seeing that, that’s already when you’re in those scenes kind of disturbing enough, but then being a white guy out in the world it made me much more conscious in my day to day life of how my actions will affect someone else. I hope people can take away from that moment that white privilege is a real thing and you can affect someone else with that unknowingly. Soren didn’t intentionally do that but that shit happens, it’s real life and yeah it was hard to sit there through and say those things and participate in it.”
And the film obviously has these very important themes in it and I think people will take a lot away from it, but when you’re watching it it’s also very enjoyable, there was a lot of laughter in the screening I was at and there’s a love story at the centre of it. Could you talk a bit about orchestrating that Ali?
Ali LeRoi: “I mean it’s a love story first and foremost, it’s a tragic love story. Two people want something for and with each other that they are not going to get. That can be set against a lot of things. You know, if it’s The English Patient it can be set against the backdrop of a war, you know whatever, pick something. Here, you know this kid is bringing his experience to the table, this nightmare that is connected to his relationship, like he’s literately dying in this relationship with this person because he can’t get them to come with him to a specific place. So that’s how he envisions the nightmare, so in that regard I think there’s a very universal aspect to it, we just happen to be culturally in a space where these difficult things are happening in the world so we use those as devices, but it’s not about that per se, because these two characters could be straight and still have some challenges about what they need from each other, they could both be white or whatever. Stanley’s’ unique position in society allowed him to bring the story to the table with these characters. My experience in terms of the subject matter and having a long history around how black people are treated in America, that’s not speaking to the gender identity aspect of it, but ultimately it is a film about how do you come to a place where you can accept yourself and be accepted by others. Tunde we think answers that for himself, he accepts himself, but he does not answer the challenge of will he be accepted by others. His acceptance of his own power in his circumstance relieves him of his nightmare that he’s having, but it doesn’t make it safe for him out in the world per se. He could still get killed by the cops on any day, but it’s not going to be because he loves a kid who doesn’t love him back, it’s just gonna be because they made a really bad decision about who he was and what they thought he should be doing and whether or not he deserved to live or die.”
Just finally I’d like to ask about the music Ali, because you’ve got a beautiful score and then some great music choices on the soundtrack as well.
Ali LeRoi: “Darryl Jones, we’ve been friends for a number of years and he came to the project and he really was passionate about wanting to do it. He would seem an unlikely choice, you know with his day job as bass player for the Rolling Stones, could he score this tragic love story with all this gender and identity and racial issues? But he did create something that was beautiful and spare, and it actually speaks to his experience. You know, Darryl’s first major music gig was playing for Miles Davis. People forget about these sorts of things. So just in terms of the score I just thought he created things that were romantic, and haunting and simple and clean and when you hear it I think you find it moving. And in terms of the source pieces that we use, I think it was kind of indicative of Stanley’s space in the world. With the songs we weren’t trying to be up to the moment, we didn’t need a hit from last week, but in the space of whatever this new music is, there are songs that are kind of standards. You might not think Waka Flocka Flame is a standard but yeah if you’re twenty two you know that song. Even if it came out six years ago or whatever it is. Yeah, so it’s a character in the film as much as everybody else. It’s eclectic, we have Lalah Hathaway on the soundtrack singing a Nina Simone song, which is haunting and beautiful and that’s Tunde’s character as well. He’s talking about François Truffaut and then we’ve got Brockhampton playing, so these kids are smart, they have these wide and varied experiences and I think that it is reductive for older adults to suggest somehow that these are things they can’t appreciate, that these are spaces that they can’t move through, don’t respect and or don’t enjoy.”
The Obituary Of Tunde Johnson has its world premiere at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival and screens again tonight at TIFF at 9pm.