Thu 8.8.2013

DIVERSITY SPEAKS: Newlyweeds Director Shaka King On How He Got His Debut Feature Made

On September 18 Newlyweeds hits theaters at the Film Forum in New York. It’s the story of a couple whose relationship revolves around their pot addiction and the difficult choices they have to make as they spin out of control. While it’s definitely not your typical love story, somehow in its own quirky way, it is comically universal. I sat down with Director Shaka King and producer Gbenga Akinnagbe (best known for his role as Chris Partlow in The Wire) to discuss the film and Shaka’s experience as a first time writer/director and Sundance darling.

What made you want to tell this story right now?
Shaka: The story came out of me very organically. I’ve been in relationships like Lyle and Nina’s before and that was a very keen inspiration for the movie. The neighborhood that I live in now and the neighborhood that I was born and raised in were very big influences. When I first started out I had this relationship story around this substance that I’m very fond of and I also, at times, have questioned it. So I had that narrative going on in my mind, but my house where I live where I do most of my writing-I stay on the border of Bushwick & Bed-Stuy. I’ve been living there for the last ten years and it’s very much a block of 80s New York characters. It was a really organic process of listening to the world around me and seeing how I could incorporate it into the story. It was shocking to me that there’s been a million stoner comedies, but there’s been no romance in them.

Tons of filmmakers, especially Black filmmakers, don’t have a lot of access or a lot of money. How did you find your financing?
Shaka: The first person I brought on board was Michael Matthews, a friend of mine from film school whose opinion I valued the most because [I knew] it would be weird, so strange—his brain is very, very unique. So I brought him on board as a producer, not because I thought he could find financing. At that point, that was a second tier focus. The main focus was getting someone I could trust and who I thought had intelligent, out the box ideas on how to get this movie made. When you’re writing a script, you have these templates that you can follow. You can go the screenplay competition route, you can go the lab route and when you get “no” from all of those it can get really discouraging. So I brought Mike on board and we got the script to an even better place than it was when I first attached him.

We brought on Jim Warreck who produced a movie the previous summer. He was fortunate enough to sell the movie to Fox International and actually get a return on his investment. And so he was willing to put in the first chunk of capital and also go back to his investors. I gotta give Jim credit; even before he put in that money, he set a deadline and set it with no money. Every step we took, whether it was an actor attached, a location, it made it more real for us. We started to believe. I really believe in the power of collective will. That’s really at the heart of most successful ventures, movie-making and otherwise.

How long was the process from conception to the time you stepped on set?
Shaka: From 2009 to 2012.

You can only be a first time director once. What would you say to any first timers about making your dream come true?
Shaka: It was special for a lot of reasons. A lot of people I was working with were first timers: lead actors, actress, one of the producers, etc. That energy of all of us doing this for the first time was there. I think that that was the driving force in the film coming out the way it did. It’s cliché, but we were a much different unit than we would’ve been if I’d been the only first timer on set. We relied upon each other to learn on the spot. We were really teaching each other throughout. It was a different type of energy that gave the film the energy that you see. That first-time energy finds its way into the material and into the movie. Hopefully in directing you’re learning until the day you stop directing.

Did you go to film school, or did you learn by making short films?
Shaka: I went to Vassar College. I started making films in my junior year and made a few shorts, but I didn’t really start until I graduated. I made two after graduating. I was working a full-time job, trying to make shorts; it was too much. I had too many cords plugged into one outlet. I just decided to go to NYU Graduate Film and that’s where I really learned how to make movies: how to direct actors, how to compose shots, how to write. I learned how to really visualize at NYU. This was actually my thesis film.

Part of the greatness of this film are the ancillary characters and what they bring. Where did you find them?
Shaka: It was always a priority that we cast as authentically as possible. One of my problems with a lot of New York movies is that you don’t see a lot of West Indian presence. All I grew up around was West Indians so I wanted to include them in my movie. When you see West Indians in movies they’re always played by non-West Indians and it’s always just like “hey man.” I can’t stand when I see that so I wanted to cast authentically and it was difficult. Sharon [Hope] was really the only actress we met who met that. Her family is West Indian. She was born and raised in the U.S, but because she has family in Jamaica, she was able to draw from experience. And she was amazing, absolutely amazing.

Gbenga, what was it like to produce a film with a whole crew of first timers?
Gbenga: When Shaka, Michael and Jim came to me, I knew this was his thesis film and so on, but they seemed very professional. What they had that a lot of professionals don’t have was a lot of openness to explore this and try that. It seemed like it was a great artistic space for me to play with them. On top of that, they were serious about their craft and their business. I liked the script and asked them a bunch of questions to see where their heads were. It never really felt like it was their first time. When they didn’t know something, they were smart enough to say, “I don’t know this. I’m gonna find out” or “what do you think?” I know a lot of professionals who don’t do that. I trusted them immediately.

Gbenga, what attracted you to the story?
Gbenga: Like Shaka said, you don’t see this story here set in this neighborhood. I happen to live ten minutes from Shaka in Bed-Stuy so I know these characters; this is my neighborhood. It was a beautifully written script that had a lot of layers and this humor that appeals to large audiences, a broad humor with subtleties and grey area. I thought it was really smart. At first when I was reading it I was like, “Alright cool, he accidentally did that well.” But as I finished the whole thing I was like, “This boy is smart.” He did it so subtly and it had so many layers to it. I read a lot of scripts and a lot of them, even the ones that get made for a lot of money, aren’t written nearly as well. That’s what attracted me—how well written it was. And the characters showed full people. With Lyle and Nina, no one was perfect. And it showed the neighborhood with the character in it. I liked the world.

How did Sundance change the trajectory of the film?
Shaka: It was such a whirlwind. Sundance did a lot for the movie. Getting into Sundance, first of all, did a lot for all of our egos, which you need. We felt really good about the work we’d done, but to get validation from Sundance was huge for us. We knew that the movie was gonna reach a much larger platform by getting into a top ten festival, let alone arguably the most famous and successful in the United States. It was also an opportunity to screen it for a very wide spectrum of audience members and see how it plays. So we go to Park City and this 50-year old guy from Croatia said it reminded him of home and a brotha from Tennessee said it reminded him of his block. It was also a pleasure just to reconnect with my cast and crew because I love them and hadn’t seen a lot of them in a long time. When you aren’t doing the work and you’re just chillin’, you see how much commonality you share. You see why this person was perfect to cast in this movie because they get you. To have that experience was one of a kind. That’s what I remember most about the festival. Then also seeing my friends and family. You have all these people who helped, who supported me, to tell my dad, “look what I did” that was helpful to me as well. Then I got an agent out of it. The movie got sold so I can say I’m a pro now. I can say this is my profession.

What’s next? They always say once you have a project, you should always have the next one right away in line.
Shaka: I have two ideas that I wanted to get started on right way. This is my job so I treat it as such. If I don’t write something all day then I’m not doing anything. I’m in it to see if I can make a living so I never want it to rest. I’ve always had projects that I intended to start while I was cutting, which was impossible. But soon after we finished cutting, I started transitioning to the next movie. I’ve been working on a feature for a little while now. I have a TV idea that I’m developing, but I’m also taking a look at other scripts hoping to get into TV directing and films to have that experience cause I’ve never done it. I’d love to take a shot at directing new material I hadn’t written.

Do you have any advice for new filmmakers trying to make their first film?
Shaka: I had this realization and it made me laugh out loud. I was thinking about how I don’t have any money and I haven’t had any money for about four years, but I’m very happy and I have everything I need. I’m rich. The only way you don’t end up being a filmmaker is if you stop. That’s literally the only way. You could go on YouTube right now and there’s somebody who shot something with his or her phone. It might be a piece of crap to you, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s actually a movie; it’s something. When I’d be in class and people would say, “just keep doing it” I’d look at them like, “shut up.” But really that’s the only secret to making a movie: make a movie. You wanna direct and you’re directing? Well, then you’re a director.

Gbenga: Don’t be afraid of collaboration. I’ve been a part of a few films now on the other side of the camera, not acting, and I learned a lot from each one. I’m finishing up Knucklehead and hopefully it will start hitting the festival route this year and 2014. There’s things that I learned watching the people I’ve worked with this year and in all the indie films I was involved with. I learned a lot from working with Shaka and other directors and producers. I see how important it is to collaborate and choose your collaborators well. And, of course, acting. I have a series coming out on USA called Graceland that I’m excited about.

By Mel Jones / Festival Assistant/Independent Producer