The piece below originally ran in conjunction with the May release of dramedy thriller Emergency and Film Independent Presents’ screening of the film, directed by Project Involve Fellows Carey Williams from a screenplay by K.D. Dávila. First developed as a short film for Project Involve, the film will be the subject of a Case Study session at the upcoming Film Independent Forum.
Like all of the programs housed under our greater umbrella of Film Independent Artist Development offerings, Project Involve is designed to help talented emerging filmmakers wedge a foot squarely between the wall and whatever doors are trying to be shut under the heavy hands of an exclusionary Hollywood. But rarely has the journey from PI to industry success—a journey enjoyed by alumni including Lulu Wang, Effie T. Brown, Marvin Lemus and others—been less circuitous than that of Emergency filmmakers KD Dávila and Carey Williams.
Working PI’s Screenwriting and Directing tracts—respectively—Dávila and Williams met in the program and were paired together to collaborate on the 2017 Project Involve short “Emergency,” which went on to win a 2018 Sundance Special Jury Award and the 2018 SXSW Narrative Short Film Jury Award. The short’s success led to its expansion into a feature film, which debuted earlier this year at Sundance 2022, where it was picked up by streamer behemoth Amazon.
All things Emergency finally came full circle Tuesday, May 10 at the Harmony Gold Theater in Hollywood, as Emergency finally returned home for a Film Independent Presents screening followed by a lively Dávila and Williams Q&A moderated by Film Independent President Josh Welsh—and with Project Involve Associate Director Francisco Velasquez looking on, beaming like a Little League dad whose kid just hit a game-winning grand slam.
Watch the full Q&A above and keep reading for highlights…
KD DÁVILA & CAREY WILLIAMS
Collaboration is born. “Before we got into the scripts and we were just coming up with story ideas, we got to know each other a little more,” said Dávila, “We were talking about this idea [Emergency] before I even pitched it.” Williams was intrigued, but hesitant: “I was scared of this project,” he admitted, “It was a humorous take on something very serious. But I also thought that was what made is special.” The result? The comedic tale of three college roommates of color, who discover an unconscious, alcohol-poisoned white girl in their apartment but are too fearful of a misunderstanding—and possible police violence—to call for help.
Funny that way. Williams eventually made sense of Emergency’s complicated tone after Project Involve mentor Angel Kristi Williams recommended he watch the 2003 Seith Mann short “Five Deep Breaths,” which addresses similar themes. “It really focused on the friendship of these young men and I was like, This is the way in.” Observing that most Project Involve shorts tend to skew dramatic, Welsh cited his reaction watching the premiere of the “Emergency” short at Project Involve First Look Showcase: “The element of humor just cut through and was so unexpected and great—and that’s in the feature as well.”
A cathartic, comedic experience. “We had both seen a lot of things that tried to tackle the issue of police and the tension they have with communities of color,” said Dávila. “Looking at the issue, the thing that interested me was this idea of the fact that there’s this culture of fear.” They wanted to address the topic without putting together a forensic portrayal of a realistic police shooting, she said. “The tension of the movie—the thing that the comedy and the drama are both mined from—is the fact that these guys have to perform this constant calculus of, How am I being perceived right now? Am I being viewed as a threat?”
Worst. Night. Ever. “I tried to make [the film] feel authored, but I didn’t want to push the comedy with the way it was shot,” said Williams of the film’s grounded visual approach. “Because this is a very real situation for them [the characters] in this night.” Said Dávila: “This is not a comedy to them at all, this is the most horrifying night of their life. For an outsider looking in, it seems comedic, but not for the characters who are in it.”
Friends we made along the way. “I’m so blessed with this cast,” said Williams, citing the return of RJ Cyler from the “Emergency” short. He expressed gratitude to casting director Kim Coleman for bringing in a wide range of performers from which to choose. “It really fell nicely into place” putting together the film’s core trio of Cyler, Donald Watkins and Sebastian Chacon, he said. The rest of the casting process happened in Atlanta, where the film was shot (under strict COVID safety protocols) in 2021. “I thought it was really funny that, of the women in the cast, all of them are named ‘Maddie’ except the one who plays Maddie”—played in the film by Sabrina Carpenter.
Blood brothers. Welsh asked how Emergency’s climactic final conversation between Cyler’s Sean and Watkins’ Kunle was constructed. “I like to think I create a very safe, playful atmosphere on set. If actors have ideas that they want to try, they feel like they can,” he said, adding: “That was the scene I wanted to see the most. It’s something I don’t usually see onscreen—two young Black men being emotionally open with each other and telling each other they love each other.” After failing to roll camera on a nearly perfect rehearsal take (which he vowed to never let happen again) Williams and his actors were thankfully able to get back to the same level. His direction? “Just go over there and talk to your brother.”
Emergency is now streaming on Amazon Prime. To learn more about Project Involve and/or any other Film Independent Artist Development programs, you can find more information here.
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(Header photo: Amanda Edwards, Getty Images)