I saw Somebodies at the Cleveland International Film Festival last weekend. It was, without a doubt, the funniest film I saw during the event. Admittedly, the Fest had a particularly weak line-up this year, but a good, solid laugh is nothing to be sniffed at, and Somebodies gave me a number.
If the film reminded me of anything, I guess it would be the earlier films of Bill Forsyth, such as Gregory's Girl or That Sinking Feeling, or maybe Kevin Smith's Clerks - all of them chatty, comedic and rooted with a quirkily bent naturalism. What sets Somebodies apart from these films, however, is its setting and characters. This film takes place in a fleshed out, richly realised rendition of Athens, Georgia.
I've never been there, so I can't say that the Athens portrayed was real - just that it was realistic. The characters are predominately African American, and a number of them college age, like Hadjii, the writer-director. As a result, of course, it is tempting to see many of the film's episodes as autobiographical but (again like Clerks) plenty of the film is taken up with skit-style happenings and neatly structured episodes.
Roger Ebert, one of Somebodies' biggest champions, will be screening the film in his Overlooked Film Festival later in April.
The film's director, Hadjii, has kindly taken the time to respond to a few questions via e-mail. He's got plenty of interesting, amusing and engaging things to say, so I'm going to reproduce his words in full. Enjoy.
Q: The film did feel a little like a series of sketches, and that you could have added more or taken away depending on the time and money available to you. Were there many you wanted to add, but couldn't? Or are there any you would, now, like to take out?
A: Well, there was one scene that was in the script that we didn’t get to shoot due to time constraints. It was a scene where all the guys were studying for tests, and they discuss how they were going to celebrate once the tests were over. It was a set-up for the scene where Marlo and the guys come home drunk and rap in front of Brad, the Campus Christian guy. I think it would’ve helped the movie, but everything happens for a reason. Who knows?
Q: Despite this sometimes episodic structure, though, there was a clear backbone to the film, with Scottie's relationship to the church, drink and women developing over the course of the running time. Do you know where Scotty is going to go next - or do you see these parts of the story as resolved by the end of the film?
A: If we get the television series, which I’m already writing scripts for, we’ll pick up with Scottie getting more serious about life. He’s moved out of the house with his friends to get his own place, he’s taken on Diva as his girlfriend, and changed his major to Child Psychology. He’s a lot more focused now, and not as laid back as he was in the film. He’s much more emotional. Things get under his skin now. He’s trying to do the right thing, but struggling. It gives us a chance to go a lot deeper into not only his character but black society.
Q: Talking to one African American viewer after the film, he was critical of what he called your "dependence on stereotypes". He and I discussed this, and we came to no conclusions, though we did have some theories. It was suggested that, possibly, you were simply representing life as you saw it, or, on the other hand, were using stereotypes deliberately and purposefully.
A: First of all, you have to understand that Somebodies is a comedy, and all comedy, whether it’s Naked Gun, Seinfeld, Chris Rock, or some comedian on stage doing a stand-up routine, depends heavily on stereotypes. But I don’t think stereotypes is the appropriate word. I prefer to say that all comedy depends on generalizations: all men want is sex; blonde girls are dumb; rich people are snobs, etc. Now obviously we know that these things aren’t true, but with storytelling you’re trying to get your point across as quickly as possible because you have this limited window. So you need these general jump-off points that everyone can relate to. So if I say, “This character is the cafeteria lady,” everyone instantly has a vision in their mind, and then I can go on with the story.
Now where it gets fishy is when the generalization offends or makes people uncomfortable. That’s when the generalization becomes a stereotype. Now my question is, “What is it about my movie and how I represented black people that makes you uncomfortable?” In my opinion, somewhere down the line society has made it hard for us to be comfortable in our own skin. Meaning that we only want to celebrate the black doctors and lawyers while the black bus-drivers and janitors fall by the wayside. The only time those people get mentioned is when it’s someone giving some success story like, “I used to be a janitor, but now I’m a millionaire! Look what I’ve accomplished!” which is cool, but what about the dude that was a janitor, and he’s still a janitor, and he’s been a janitor for twenty years? Why can’t we celebrate him? Because we’ve inherited a sense of insecurity or embarrassment about these people, and I’m totally against that.
For example, if you go to an Asian guy’s house for dinner and he serves you an Asian dish, and has his music playing in the background, and knows martial arts, etc., people will say, “He’s in touch with his culture.” But if I tell you that I like fried chicken, rap music, and basketball, I’m a stereotype. Why can’t that be a part of my culture? Why do I have to collect foreign art and listen to classical music, etc., to prove that I have culture?
It’s like as a black filmmaker or storyteller we always have something to prove, and what I want to prove is that all these people are beautiful in their own way. It’s like most filmmakers try to create beautiful people who are flawed, but I’m more into flawed people who are beautiful.
Now don’t get me wrong. I know I had some stereotypical characters in there as well. And I did that to show that there are different types of black people in the world. Different types of black people in one family. Different types of black people in one house. Earlier you asked, “Was there something else I would’ve liked to have shot?” Well, there is another scene that we shot, but we couldn’t shoot it the way I wanted to because we didn’t have the extras. But when Scottie and Diva walk up to the family barbecue I wanted Scottie to walk through and greet his entire family. Like have the camera follow him as he says hello to his cousins over to the side playing Spades, an uncle on the porch smoking a cigarette, an aunt and uncle playing with their children outside, younger cousins running around, grandparents sitting in the living room, etc., all ages, different shades of brown. Different styles of dress. Different ways of speaking. All in one family.
Q: The English character was, very obviously, a complete caricature. He definitely appeared to be a stereotype to little old English me. Do you feel filmmakers have a responsibility to challenge stereotypes? Perhaps to subvert or undermine them?
A: Again, the movie is a comedy so don’t take anything too seriously. The character was originally written as a sloppy white guy who thought he was doing Marlo this great service by hiring him, therefore, helping society. But for reasons I don’t recall we had to recast, and the guy who ended up replacing him had this English accent, and I thought it gave the scene a unique spin.
But back to your question: filmmakers have only one responsibility, and that’s to make films. Me personally, I love to challenge stereotypes, because again, what’s a stereotype? Who defines what a stereotype is? Why do they make us feel so uncomfortable? Why do we take them so seriously? It’s a joke. And what makes the joke so effective is the fact that he is a foreigner, and having had a Nigerian roommate once, I’ve seen firsthand someone who came to this country with ideas and perceptions of how black people act. They’ll rob you, kill you, etc., and it’s not the case. So when that scene plays and he’s talking about “growing up in the hood,” it’s so funny, because it’s completely absurd, but you have people who think like that.
Q: The camera work in Somebodies was a strange mix of the "fuss free" and the "crafted" - lots of practical lighting, no frills, but some very sensibly chosen shots that, by and large, cut together brilliantly. How do you feel about the cinematography of the film? And how did you collaborate with the camera crew on the film?
A: Well, first and foremost, thanks for the compliment, because I was heavily involved in the cutting of the film. It’s funny, though, because there are also people who didn’t like the way it was cut, but I think that’s because they didn’t understand what we were trying to accomplish. From the script, to the performances, to the editing, I wasn’t trying to create this polished look. I wanted the movie to look as real and authentic as possible. I wanted to create a documentary vibe like you’re looking in on a world that you’ve never seen before. Fortunately I had a chance to work with Ousami Rawi, a cinematographer with several years of experience in the field who helped me bring an artistic look to my gritty vision.
I mean seriously, we didn’t have a shot-list or storyboard or any of that. We’d just show up at a location and talk about what I wanted, and then he’d share his thoughts, and we’d meet somewhere in the middle.
In addition to that, you also have to consider the fact that we shot the entire film on location in nineteen days. A lot of the locations we used were much smaller than they appear on screen. Whenever someone who worked on the film in post comes to Athens I take them around and show them various locations that we used and they’re always in disbelief, because it looks so good and spacious on screen. I really can’t take the credit for any of that. Have to thank Ossi for that.
Q: Some of the cuts between scenes were amongst the funniest moments in the film. My particular favourite was the church-to-church edit. Were these transitions all scripted or did any of this come to you in post-production?
A: It’s funny, because that’s one of the questions I get the most, “Was it all scripted?” And to be perfectly honest, yes, 95 percent of the movie was scripted. However, I was working with some very talented people, and I always had my ear open to their suggestions. But yeah, the majority of those cuts were scripted. Thank me for that.
Q: Many of your cast were comedians, and this gave the film a certain style and tone in the performances. It's hard to describe, being somewhere between a kind of (uncommon) naturalism and something sometimes funnier, louder than real life. Your character, Scotty, always seemed to be the most "normal" character in the film too.
A: What I wanted to employ was what I call “The Seinfeld Method.” Meaning, if you watch an episode of Seinfeld, it’s obvious that Jerry Seinfeld isn’t the best actor in the world, but you never really pay any attention to it because his supporting cast is so good. I tried to do the same thing with my film: even though I’m the lead character, no one’s really watching me. They’re too busy watching Kaira, or Patt Brown, or IronE or whoever else I’m in the scene with.
My character’s the straight-man while these guys get to have all the fun.
In addition to that, a lot of the cast members are real-life friends of mine, and the rest of the cast, whether comedians or actors; at the end of the day, we all just hit it off and got along with each other instantly and I think it comes across on screen.
Q: I have never been to Athens, but now I have a very clear idea of how the city feels. Or at least I think I do. Is the film a truthful representation? Or did you cheat in anyway? Is there anything you left out? And was it important to you to make the film a local film, with local flavour, and not just something that could be anyplace, anywhere?
A: When you’re writing a script or telling a story, one of the most essential things that you have to do is create a world for your characters to live in. If you just create characters, you come up with caricatures, but if you create a world for those characters to live in the characters have more depth and aren’t one dimensional. So it was very important to let the viewer know that this story was coming from a particular place about a certain group of people. Again, it was about creating that documentary vibe so even if a viewer doesn’t get all of the jokes or doesn’t understand the story, they still don’t feel alienated. They’re still engaged because they feel like they’re looking in on something.
Q: What did you learn in making this film? And how will this help you in future projects? And, actually, had you made any shorts or other film work prior to this?
A: I made a short or two before, but nothing’s like making a feature. And what I learned from it was everything. I learned about filmmaking, storytelling, the craft, the business, myself, my friends. Everything. And I’m still learning. All of these lessons will have me much more prepared for my next film.
Q: What are your hopes for the film now? Are any distributors interested, for either theatrical or DVD release? Which festivals are you hoping to also take the film to?
A: We’re talking to a few people about that stuff. That’s really all I can say about that at the moment. Next weekend, April 7 and 8 we’ll be in Sarasota, Florida for their festival, and then at the end of April we’ll be playing at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, Illinois.
Q: What project is next for you?
A: I have a script that I hope to shoot called Who By Fire, written by Allison Firor, that is absolutely amazing. I hope to get Somebodies; The Television Series off the ground, and I have a book that should be coming out in Spring 2007. That, plus a couple of other pet-projects I’m trying to get in motion. We’ll see what happens.
I appreciate everyone coming out and supporting the film. They can find more information at www.somebodiesmovie.com.
All that's left for me to do is thank Hadjii for his time and thoughtful answers, and remind you that Somebodies is out there for you to enjoy. You might just have to look a little further than your local multiplex. The exercise will be good for you.