Coming of age films are enduring. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find any adult who hasn’t experienced the haze of confusion yielded by bursting hormones, morphing body parts, and the social isolation felt with shifting ambiguous identities.
Movies that can capture that bewildering, adolescent time with nuance deserve a spot in our cinema-consciousness. Fresh off a successful screening at Sundance NEXT FEST, director Chad Hartigan‘s Morris from America, is no exception. Starring Craig Robinson and newcomer Markees Christmas, the film is a funny-but-moving exploration of isolation, hip-hop, and familial dynamics, all navigated against a very alien landscape for father and son: the very-white Heidelberg, Germany.
We speak with Hartigan about his semi-autobiographical film, rap lyrics, and what authenticity in storytelling means to him.
CINEMA THREAD: Morris from America is semi-autobiographical, but at the same time, it’s also a black story. As a white director, what are some of the challenges of doing such a story?
CHAD HARTIGAN: The first challenge was just kind of getting over that and writing an experience in a way that felt natural for someone else without changing as much.
The challenge is mainly not worrying so much about the challenge and just trusting that a lot of experiences are more universal than you think.
And then, like, not being afraid to show it to people, being very open about it, getting feedback and working out details that maybe change the authenticity. But for the most part, in individual scenes, like what happens to Morris or how Morris reacts to things, is very much me. I felt like that was probably okay, because people are, in the end, very similar.
CT: You wrote Morris’ rap lyrics yourself. Was there a similar moment with your dad or your mom where someone read and reacted to them, and what was the response?
CH: When I was compiling things from my own life early on, one of the things I remember was writing the lyrics, ‘fucking all the bitches, two at a time.’ My teacher found it in my notebook and gave it to my mom and I got in big trouble. So I was like, ‘oh that’s a funny story.’ But then I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be funnier if I got in trouble because those lyrics were so bad rather than the actual content?’ So that’s something I thought of early in the process and basically informed the entire Curtis character, because I was like, well, what kind of parent would that be? I really built their entire relationship and dynamic off of that idea of that reaction to those lyrics.
CT: Even though the relationship and dynamic is built upon that idea, that reaction—how much of maybe your own father-son dynamics or parent relationships from your own life are reflected in the movie?
CH: Probably none, nothing like that at all. I don’t have kids, and my relationship with my dad is not like Morris and Curtis at all. If anything, it’s maybe an idealized version of what I had imagined myself as a parent to be like. It’s easy as a non-parent to imagine that you’ll be so chill and cool and always have the right approach. It’s probably a little bit of that, and maybe once you have kids, after two years it’s like “Go to your room. Shut up!” But yeah, that’s completely made up, that dynamic.
CT: Have you noticed any difference in response from those who watched who are parents versus not parents.
CH: Not many people have come up to me and said anything specific like that. Craig has got a lot of—and I also have heard a lot of people say—‘I wish Curtis was my dad.’ But, no, I’m not sure what the difference would be.
CT: Has there been any stickiness in response from the African American community?
CH: Well, I think that, if someone felt that it was insensitive, they are not apt to come up and tell me to my face, so I’m sure there is that reaction, but I haven’t experienced much of it. At Sundance, I did talk to one black girl who felt that, not that it was aggressively racist, but that my point of view was naive in some ways. We had a nice talk about it and I’m very open to hearing those things. But generally speaking, if someone’s coming up to me, they’re saying something complimentary. When the movie’s released and people can just write about it, maybe I’ll see more of that. And there was actually a white critic at Sundance that wrote a review that they thought [the movie] was exploitative, and a black writer responded and defended it—which was nice. But I think it’s gonna be both—there are gonna be white and black people who think it’s insensitive, and if it is a black person who thinks it’s insensitive, then […] there’s no way for me to go, ‘well, you’re wrong, sorry pal.’ But I think I did a good enough job that each individual person is getting something different from it, and it’s more about their own personal experience.
CT: In another interview, you stated that you knew Morris was a challenge but that it was an important story, and that as long as you did it with authenticity and respect, it would be okay. What does that mean when it comes to filmmaking?
CH: I think what I meant was that, as a writer, when it comes to filmmaking, everyone feels like a real person. There’s like a specificity to each person. That’s the only way to defend yourself. You can always be accused that if you show one thing that you’re representing everyone or everything. As long as there could be one person like that, I think you should be allowed to make a movie about that person. Some people watch the trailer and are like ‘of course, the black kid likes rap,’ but … some black kids like rap. It shouldn’t exclude rap from being part of a black person’s story because it’s in one way stereotypical. That’s one facet of Morris amongst many others. That’s one thing I try to do—make sure everyone has multiple things going on. Curtis speaks in a way that some people think is stereotypical, but he’s a professional ex-soccer player, they’re in the middle class, in the middle of Germany—all these things that I’ve never seen portrayed, all these things that, as a whole, make it feel like a very specific, unique person. It’ll always be hard to please everyone.
CH: I think the movie, or I, did a better job, at making Morris and Curtis well-rounded people than I did some of the Germans. Germans are people too, and they, I think, have a bit more right to feel like I was insensitive. But no one has asked me anything. I have talked to some Germans who have been like “I don’t know, we’re not all that mean.” The questions I get are always about writing the African-American characters, they’re never about the German characters, which, I think, are just as foreign to me. So, I think it’s a product of the climate today where that one issue is the most sensitive today. But really as a writer, it’s hard to write anything.
CT: But you’d spent some time in Germany when you wrote the script?
When I’d written the script, I’d only been in Germany four days. Since writing the script and making it, I’ve lived there now, maybe a combined total of two years, and know much more about it. Which is the point: I want to make films and make stories where it starts from a place of something I know about but incorporates all these other elements that I don’t know a lot about, so that I learn a lot by making movies. Three or four years into it, if I don’t learn something new in the course of it, what’s the point of it?
CT: Were there any challenges working with younger actors?
CH: Stupid logistical ones like you can only work a certain number of hours with them, but also, it’s just a different thing. And I remember there’s a scene in the movie where the tutor comes over and talks to the dad about the lyrics. We shot that on day 16, and it was the first scene between two adults. I remember just thinking, ‘Whoo, So relaxing! I call ‘action’ and these two pros just do it and it’s, like, perfect! Not that it was so difficult to work with the kids, but you just have to approach it differently and sometimes it’s more about keeping them focused or entertained than it is about going through the motions of the acting.
Markees had never been in a movie before, so a lot of the times he was just so thrilled and so excited and having a great time and wanted to joke around with everyone. And I’d be like ‘Markees. Focus. Give me five seconds here.’
CT: Do you think that Markees had changed or grown much after doing the film and having that experience?
CH: Yes. He’d never been on a plane before, so just to experience that other culture … he was there seven weeks and by the end, he was in love with Germany. He was already a curious kid and I’m sure would’ve wanted to see parts of the world, but I think it just opened his eyes even more and now he’s talking about how he wants to go Russia. For the movie, going to festivals, we’ve gotten to go to other places. He went to Korea, and I think he’s just becoming more curious about the world.
CT: Back to the music, how did you get into hip-hop and rap, and how might that have been integrated into the movie outside of Morris’ own interest?
CH: Well I was 12 in ‘94 and that’s when Snoop Dogg, Warren G, Dr. Dre and gangster rap hit the mainstream and all I knew was the mainstream but I got really into it. And that’s when I wrote those lyrics and I thought I could be a rapper, very briefly! And then later into the 90s and in high school, I listened to Puff Daddy and Ma$e and Notorious B.I.G., but I was more like, just interested because it was popular. I liked it, legitimately, but I just liked whatever was in the mainstream and then I liked the idea when I was creating that Curtis character, of having someone who wanted to teach his son through music.
Now I love all kinds of music, and some of my favorite scenes in movies are almost always tied to the combination of music and picture. Those are the most important cinematic moments for me, so I wanted the film to be music driven.
I liked this character trying to get his son through this tough situation by using music he would’ve liked at this time in his life and that’s kind of how it infiltrated this story.