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2020’s reckoning with social justice inspired new urgency for activism. In light of the high-profile police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and far too many others, the #SayTheirNames list continues to grow. In the same manner protesters and community organizers rallied to raise awareness for initiatives like defunding the police, addressing the over-policing of Black communities and the prison industrial system, artists poured from their souls to express themselves creatively.
Last year was deemed “The Year Of Protest Music” by NPR, citing hip hop songs like “The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby, “HELLA FUCKIN’ TRAUMA” by Juicy J and “Song 33” by Noname. Likewise, filmmakers like Emmy award winning comedian, writer and director Travon Free with his short film, Two Distant Strangers, co-directed by Martin Desmond Roe, used his art to imitate life.
Free put his pen to the test to present real-life events in the movie in a way that strips people of their “moral baggage” and crafted a sick, yet too familiar, story that “manipulates [the viewer’s] emotions.” Thanks to backing from noteworthy supporters like Jesse Williams, Adam McKay, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Van Lathan, Marti Noxon, Damon Lindelof, Gigi Pritzker, Mickey Meyer, and NBA players Kevin Durant and Mike Conley Jr., Two Distant Strangers was birthed.
Academy award-winning director Bong Joon-ho acclaimed, “The film uses repetition as a device of horror to suffocate you thoroughly and mines fear in a profound, persistent way that’s never been seen before.”
In an exclusive interview with REVOLT, Free discusses the movie’s creation, working with Joey Badass, who’s the film’s protagonist; divinely inspired moments on set and more. Read the chat below!
What made you write Two Distant Strangers?
The film was born out of the repetition of seeing stories about Black people who were being killed by the police over and over again. And having to relive the outrage, and the sadness, and the grief, and then the acceptance of those events over and over again. And in doing that, one particular day it just kind of occurred to me...that sparked the idea of [what does that] look like on paper — on film?”
You wrote, produced and directed this during the pandemic. How was it filming during COVID?
It was really challenging because at the time of writing and inception of the idea, there was no filming allowed in L.A. — knowing we wanted to get the film made to potentially get into festivals, submit for The Academy and every other opportunity we can have to get the film shared to a wider audience.
We knew we were kind of up against the clock while also not knowing… if people would allow us to film. So, we started raising money… sending people the script, and asking people if they would help us bring this film to life. Pretty much everyone said yeah. And that’s a reflection of all the names you see in the credits.
A very large portion of our budget was spent on getting COVID compliance. We tested every day because of it. Their recommendation was every three days, but because of what we were doing, we had to agree to test every day. It was a little irritating, but we had to do it to get the movie made. No one on set got sick. No one got sick in post. We managed to be incredibly careful and smart and protective.
I love the timeliness. #SayTheirNames is definitely a large theme and the unfortunate inspiration behind the film. We saw a new wave of social justice activism that we haven’t seen in a really long time.
Yeah, last summer felt like maybe people finally got it. Maybe this is what it took for people to finally get what we’ve been saying and what’s been going on, and how we feel. It was an interesting moment for America and translated across the world. It was something I hoped would stick around much longer than it has. Now it feels like… everybody posted their black square and went on with their business as if they know they did their part to stop racism or police violence, and you have to remind your white friends that it’s not over. It’s still happening.
The George Floyd bill is about to get probably killed in the Senate, and it’s that energy that keeps those things from happening. It’s that energy that keeps making those things possible for us — for bills like that, that have a lot of great stuff in it to change the way policing happens in this country. Not being just a political tool for people to use to galvanize their base, but actually something that can implement change. So, I felt like it was important to not only make a piece that will remind people of the times we were living in, and the times we lived in last year, but would also live long past that and every time you watched it, you would be reminded of just a small amount of the many, many people who have been killed by the police and who should be alive.
Let’s talk about this movie depiction of PTSD. Something I noticed is that we don’t even know Carter’s background to fully understand why this is his greatest fear. We just know that he’s a Black man.
I think from talking to my Black friends — male and female — from all the protests I’ve been to and all the people I’ve met and conversations I’ve had, I imagine what he’s going through is a big fear not just for a lot of young Black men, but for a lot of our parents, and a lot of our partners, and our siblings that [at] any given moment, you might lose your Black male family member to something like this — to one of these really crazy, like benign, incidents that turns deadly.
And I think for Carter, the reason why I think it’s effective to not know his background — especially in the short-form piece — is because when these stories happen, we don’t know the background of these people until they go and dig up every amount of dirt, or negative thing, or bad grade they got in elementary school to tell us why this person deserved to die. I guess the idea [is] it doesn’t — it shouldn’t matter, you know?
Many of the more publicized police killings that we’ve seen have been documented either from cell phone or body cam footage. So, do you think it’s a little idyllic to hope that a film will move people in a way that even real-life footage has not?
It is in a way. But, I would say it isn’t in the sense that you look at the role TV and film has played in shifting not just national, but sometimes global conversations around issues, especially social issues.
You know when you create a piece of art, especially film or television, you have the ability to manipulate someone’s emotions in the way that you want to where I can take you down a road — on a journey — that you, for the most part, have no control over because just by virtue of you sitting down to watch something, you’ve agreed to let your guard down and take off a lot of that moral baggage that people carry around.
While I don’t think a single movie can end police violence against Black people, I do believe it can create and further conversations that are being had or need to be had just because of the emotional response that I know white people have been having to this movie, and the things that they’ve been saying after they see it.
Even from police officers who seen the movie, it is obviously never going to be a hundred percent well-received by any group. But, the people who have seen in mass — in all of our screenings and all of our press pushes — I have not heard a single negative thing up to this point about people’s experience with the movie and I think that’s a testament to how well Joey and Andrew and Zaria tell the story, and it’s a testament to how well we directed it and how well Alex Otis Smith edited it.
I don’t expect this movie to change the world, but I expect it to resonate and at least open some minds, and it seems like we’ve done that up to this point.
The cinematography is so engaging. The point-of-view shots. It felt like a video game and if you stare long enough, you might think it is actually happening to you. You guys really took us there.
I still have Joey’s three bloody hoodies hanging up in my closet in clear garment bags (laughs). That’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted you to feel like you were him. We wanted you to feel like you were having this experience with him and that was the only way people couldn’t disconnect from it if they’re watching it. So, those point of view shots, the times where you really get centered in Joey’s perspective in character is because we want that to be you.
Can we talk about that alley scene? I’m not tripping right? The blood was in the shape of Africa?
That’s a funny thing and it’s one of the many miracles of this movie because as crazy as it sounds that actually happened on its own.
You mean that wasn’t on purpose?
It’s one of those things that when it happened and in real time, we were freaking out like we cannot believe it was happening and people thought we were like geniuses for thinking of that, and I think it’s one of those moments when God is like, “Hey, Let me help you out a little bit.” That was the last shot of the last day of filming. And all we had to do was get that shot of Joey bleeding out and we wrapped the whole movie.
I was standing maybe two feet out a frame from that overhead shot, and I’m watching the blood pool, and then all of a sudden it starts to take the beginnings of the shape of Africa and I go, “Martin, look at this blood. It’s turning into Africa.” And he goes, “Holy shit! It is.” And then the special effects woman looks at the monitor and she goes, ‘If you guys had asked me to do that on purpose, 10 times out of 10, I would have failed.” ...It really was something that we were gifted [with] from the above.
The ancestors were looking down like, “Yes! Tell our story!” What was it like working with Joey?
People don’t know — and I learned this not crazy long ago — Joey started out in theater school. Like he started out in high school wanting to act, and so he went to school for it. Then, rap took off, and he became Joey Bada$$ that we know today.
I met Joey through James Samuels, who just finished directing The Harder They Fall for Netflix with Regina King and Idris Elba, and he auditioned Joey for a part in the movie and Joey couldn’t take it because of scheduling conflicts. We were talking on the phone one night and he was like, “You know who you need for this part is Joey Bada$$” I was like, “Oh wow! That’s really interesting ‘cause I love Joey on ‘Mr. Robot,’ but I don’t know him and I have no connection to Joey whatsoever. So, how the hell am I going to pull that off?
He’s like, ‘I’ll call you back,’ and he calls back with Joey on three-way FaceTime. Joey is already agreeing to do the movie without even having read the script — just from what James told him.
I sent him the script. He loves it and like a week or so later... he began learning the script, digging into the character, understanding who Carter is and what he has to be.
He was so dialed-in. He was so attentive. He cared about the part. He cared about the character. He wanted to be good. He did not take it in any passive way, whatsoever, and he was really great to work with. Now, I read scripts after this movie to either re-write, or write and direct and now I’m like, “I see Joey. I can turn this character into a character Joey could play.” ...I’m excited, hopefully, to watch him become one of our generation’s newest best actors.
Where can we watch Two Distant Strangers?
We don’t have distribution yet. We’re still working on that, so people can watch it in any of our many private screenings we’ve been having if they follow the Two Distant Strangers accounts on Twitter and Instagram, or myself and Martin. You will know when we announce whenever there’s a screening.