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Monsters and Men: An Interview with Reinaldo Marcus Green
January 18, 2019
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Monsters and Men provides an intimate, multi-perspective look-in through an interlinked three fold narrative dealing with the highly sentive issue of police brutality. Green’s directorial debut is filled with emotional nuances of a complex situation which resonates deeply with the ever-present entrenched societal chasms.
The three seamlessly interwoven stories are centered around the aftermath of a police shooting of a Darius Larson. Stand-by observer Manny (Hamilton, A Star Is Born) who happens to be on the scene, records the whole thing on his phone and later uploads it online bringing national attention on the case, the cautious Dennis (John David Washington, BlacKKKlansman) a cop in the same precinct and a young-high-school athlete Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who is galvanized by the story, after being stop-searched himself by the police.
Monsters and Men has a unique and soft if matter-fact approach that underlies something truly poignant. Green turns his full attention on the inner psyche of the three protagonists, which not also provide great character portrayals but also examines the impact of an unjust action, such as the shooting, on their emotional state and juxtaposes it with each individuals background and personal motivation which leads to each one of them behaving accordingly.
We had the pleasure speak to Green a few weeks back to tell us more about his film….
Where do we find you at the moment?
The film is in select theatres now in the US and coming out January 18th. I’m here in the UK for promo but I am also here editing a show for Netflix called Top Boy. It used to be a Channel 4 series. The first season was directed by Yann Damange. It went off the air about 5-6 years ago. They are bringing back now with Drake and LeBron James’s company Spring Hill. It’s a ten-part Netflix series. I’m pretty excited!
Can you tell us behind the impetus behind Monsters and Men?
I made a short film in 2014 called Stop. It was 9-minute short that premiered at Sundance. The short is the third segment that you see in Monsters and Men. About a teenage boy who comes home from practice and gets stopped and frisked by the police. In that short, I cast a cop friend of mine who we grew up together. At one point when we were hanging out, we ended up talking about a video tape of police brutality, specifically the Eric Garner case, we are both from Staten Island. One thing led to another, I discovered we had a different take of the same incident. That encounter was the one that ended becoming the dinner scene in the film.
It was weird as I never thought of expanding the short into a feature. Somehow that conversation led me to the idea of perspective, which led me to the triptych, which then led me to look at the short and look at what’s good about it and turn it into a feature. That conversation gave me the pathway to where we are now.
Can you tell us about the casting process?
Lots of different ways. When I first set out, I thought I was going to make it for no money. I was going to put it on my credit card. Like the typical first time feature where nobody is going to give you any money, especially for a film that is about a social issue. I was actually thinking ‘f I made my short for 500 bucks. I was doing maths like 9 minutes is 500 bucks, 90 minutes would be (laughs)…
In the writing process we started getting lucky. Applying for various grants and funds, cobbling together money as it was coming in, like the: Tribeca Film Festival Fund, Spike Lee fund, San Francisco Film Society…. we got like 60 grand in funds. We were able to then a casting director, Amy Hoffman whose done huge movies. We weren’t able to afford her rate, but she was keen to get involved started us up for a few weeks, get few actors involved and build momentum.
So, a casting director would make it appealing for other actors to get involved?
Yes thats right. I also have an agent, Greg Christel at WME, so we used his leverage there. They introduce me to loads of people, like John David Washington who they also manage as well as helped the film to get under the radar of some of the actors in the early stages.
The film alternates protagonist three times. Can you tell us about that decision?
I started to think about triptychs and how to structure it. It’s a big idea. How do I shape this idea into a cohesive narrative? I started looking at films that I love and that do it well. Amores Perros is one of the films that I loved. I loved how the stories were interconnected. And other films like Short Cuts, all the triptychs that I can see in other films. The Place Beyond the Pines or Moonlight, looking at what connects the different stories within each film. Also another film that does stand out is Elephant by Gus Van Sant. I remember loving the way you were following one character and then you just left them and start to follow another character; all in the vein of one story leading up to that one big event. The difference with that film, is that it all takes place in one location, the school. So, it’s easier to do that, cause its contained.
I thought is it possible to do something similar in one neighbourhood, can I create that? Can I be filming at the back of someone’s head and then just leave the character? The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that was the structure that I was looking for. However, it’s not Crash, like dipping in and out of stories. I know it shares similar themes, the police brutality, but I didn’t want to be compared to Crash. Its great movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s been done. I wanted this movie to feel like an original structure dealing with this particular subject matter. Then I started thinking of how to combine the two.
Is there a risk involved deviating from the straight-up narrative?
Yes, for sure. You are alienating some audiences straight off the bat. There audiences who just wouldn’t watch something like that. I had an understanding for that when I decided to follow that route, for sure. But I also think maybe there is an appetite for people wanting to see something different.
At the same time it’s my first feature, more than anything I wanted to keep it original and create my own style. I also thought the story, that it deserves a different way of telling it. If I made the stories all neat and tidy, I would actually be making it a disservice.
During writing porcess, the script had more interconnectedness and then things were removed in the editing room, appropriately. There was a full scene at the end, where Washington’s character shows up at the rally, but something felt artificial about it. We are making something pretty close to reality. I’m sure there could have beena more Hollywood movie version, that perhaps a lot of fans of Washington or Ramos would have wanted. And part of me was like if they kill Ned Stark in Game of Thrones, then why not have things this way.
The different perspectives highlight the complexity of the situation even more. There is a personal cost for each protagonist with each of their stances.
Its hard to say what you truly believe. I remember at school, sometimes I knew the answer but I was afraid to raise my hand. If you get it right you’re a know-it-all, if you get it wrong you’re an idiot. There is always the feeling of maybe I should just keep quiet. Like you knew the answer, but you chickened out to say it.
But yeah there is this feeling of when can you be brave? When can you stand up? Growing in an inner-city environment, kids make fun of you. You grow up, keeping yourself to yourself. I felt that for a very long time in my life. Now that I’m a dad and I’m getting older and I give less of a crap, it becomes easier to speak up, to talk about things. At the same time I recognize how difficult it is. Like when I had that conversation with my cop friend thats when I realized ‘wow! I’ve been bottling my feelings up for a long time.’
And it’s something you don’t really talk about with like-minded people, cause you’re on the same page. It’s coming to a point, when someone has a difference of opinion you either shut them down or you don’t know how to deal with it, you unfollow them on social media or whatever. That’s where we are as a society, we sort of created bubbles to keep us safe and when I had that conversation it took me out of my bubble. There are other folks that think differently and you don’t engage with them much. I read this newspaper, that columnist. I pick the books and music that I want. My world has become customised to me and my beliefs. So, when something comes up out of leftfield, it knocks you off course.
I wanted the film to have that, to make you feel a little uncomfortable. We have to be able to engage with this subject matter, however difficult. Its not easy. It was not easy for none of the characters, in particular for the young boy for him to speak up. The generational difference, his father’s hopes for him, the societal pressure imposed on him. For him to be lauded as the star of the family and for him to reject that for activism, is not easy. Often in other times, like the cop in the film, it’s easier to retreat and just go along with it.
The first scene when Washington’s character randomly gets stopped by another police man and he doesn’t reveal he is also a cop. It’s a perfect example of how different people react differently to situations.
The characters do make choices that aren’t what you expect and yes it may be disappointing, but that’s life. We aren’t always heroes. I think sometimes men and women who serve, are doing it for the right reasons but the institutions themselves perhaps not. I could have just created the hero cop, but I felt the institution behind him needed to be addressed. That’s the underlying message for me for the film, we need to fix the current situation we find ourselves in. There is no easy answer, but we have to come together, to try and find some middle ground. The film tackles that grey area, which was always my intention to do so.
Your approach however is soft, not so condemning or preachy. Would you agree?
I didn’t want it to be preachy. I didn’t want it to feel didactic, like it’s telling you how to feel. Its complicated. We don’t often engage with the other side and when it happens, we shut down and then nothing happens. This is how presidents get elected, we remain our bubbles and don’t think that somebody else could think any other way. And then Trump or Brexit happens. Maybe we should feel uncomfortable outside our bubble, cause then maybe, just maybe we can take some action. Not that I know what that action is… Perhaps more an individual thing.
When I think about it, there are certain things I find to be very important in my life, do I engage with them on a normal basis? Am I out there on the front lines? What are the front lines nowadays? It’s not the 1960s… and if I don’t have 100 million followers on Facebook am I reaching out to anybody? What do I do about this platform? How do we engage with subject matters we care about and reach the masses… effectively create change? This movie is my platform…
The endings of all three stories are ambiguous. What would their alternative endings be?
Ha ha… well maybe I should have finished it with Manny talking to a lawyer or maybe not a positive ending at all. Maybe he ends up going to jail for four years. Maybe I could have something more definitive. Some people want closure. Like you develop certain feelings for the characters and you want to know what happens to them. In this film, again I wanted to leave things open ended…..like you have a feeling what would’ve happened. There are a few hints here and there.
I read in an interview you worked in finance before. How did you make the transition to film?
I have a brother who is a filmmaker and he was the one that inspired me to go to film school. Actually originally I was a teacher, kindergarten to 5thgrade. Then I transitioned from teaching to Wall-Street. I was working in Wall Street for 5 years. Then I left the corporate world to make films with my brother, so we can be the Green brothers (laughs). This all took about 10 years for me to figure out I wanted to become a film maker. I decided to go to film school, I went to NYU, Tisch Graduate School. I made seven shorts in film school, two of them had done pretty well, went to have long lives in the festival circuit. One went to Cannes the other went to Sundance.
Does Monsters and Men, signal the type of films we should expect from you?
Well I’m writing my next project as well doing Top Boy. Initially when I went to film school, I thought I was going to do comedy and I ended up doing drama. I have a comedy in me. I have an animation in me…. At the core there will always an issue, that I’ll be trying to tackle. A culture resonance… And you can do that in all sorts of ways, even in movies like Zootopia. You can make things that have a strong underlying a message and still be entertaining and easy to digest.
Monsters and Men is released on the 18thJanuary 2019.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_.
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