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Film Independent Thu 5.9.2024

Interview: Spirit Award Winner Stefon Bristol Learns How To ‘Breathe’

Filmmaker Stefon Bristol’s 2019 debut See You Yesterday (Netflix) demonstrated the filmmaker’s deft ability to blend tones and legibly render a complex time-travel story injected with social consciousness and the Black experience. Bristol and co-screenwriter Felicia Bailey deservedly took home the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay in 2020. Now with his sophomore feature Breathe (distributed by Warner Brothers), the NY-based Spike Lee protege continues his ambitious project of telling Black-cenetered sci-fi stories on an indie film budget.

Beginning with a Black List-approved original screenplay by Doug Simon, Bristol was encouraged by producers to put his own stamp on the material, resulting in the change of setting from post-apocalyptic upstate New York to post-apocalyptic Flatbush. Bristol’s updated vision also attracted the film’s stellar cast, which includes Jennifer Hudson, Milla Jovovich, Qvenzhané Wallis, Sam Worthington, Common and more.

We spoke to Bristol on the eve of Breathes early May release to delve deep into how he personalized this fraught tale of futuristic cat-and-mouse, as well as genre filmmaking and how winning a Spirit Award provided him with a “seat at the table.”



Let’s start with when you learned that See You Yesterday had been nominated for a Spirit Award. What was that like?

Bristol: You know, I really didn’t think we’d get nominated. I was shadowing on a TV show in Atlanta, and I’m driving around with the crew doing location scouting. Then my phone was blowing up and I’m like, “Yo, what the hell’s going on? This is crazy!” I was really on Cloud Nine. When Fredrica and I won, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t think we were going to win. I didn’t believe in myself that way. Obviously, me and my team were trying to use that [nomination] to get other projects. Thunder Road took an interest in me, and I was interested in Breathe because it was on the Black List in 2019. So I met with the producers in LA and gave them my vision for the project.

Were you already pitching on it when the nomination happened?

Bristol: So, I was nominated in November and in December I went out to LA to meet with Thunder Road and pitched my vision to Basil [Iwanyk, producer], so yeah. It was around that time. You know, Basil is a real storyteller. He was like, “Okay, you want to do this movie? What freshness can you bring to it?” They let me know that a real A-list director, I never learned who it was, wanted to make [the script] into something bigger than what Thunder Road wanted. And my thing is, I love how contained Breathe is.

What was it you envisioned that they responded to?

Bristol: The script was set on a farm upstate, and I was like, “Nah, this needs to be in Brooklyn, with a predominantly Black cast.” They loved that idea, but it wasn’t easy. Being a Spirit Award winner was great, but that only got me to the table. At the end of the day it was like, “Okay cool, you’re here. What ideas can you bring?” I read the script a couple of more times and noticed that every character was talking about their children. Everybody’s worried about their kids, right? So I said, okay, that’s the angle. I figured out the theme [of the movie], which comes from a Native American proverb, something like: We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Milla Jovovich in ‘Breathe’ (2024, dir. Stefon Bristol)

I can’t imagine you actually filmed it in Brooklyn though, right?

Bristol: That was tough. There was no more tax credit in New York because of the pandemic, but the tax credit was still good over in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. So we shot in a wonderful small town right outside of Philly, called Chester. We had sound stages, but all the main things we did outside were in Chester on one block. We used other places around the area as well, but we mainly shot in Chester for like five weeks. Once the neighborhood learned about Jennifer Hudson, we had a couple of kids from the neighborhood sneaking in on set and pretending they were crew, it was bananas.

It’s a post-apocalyptic film, so I guess you can’t really sneak on set as part of a crowd scene or anything.

Bristol: Exactly. But they didn’t know anything about the movie. We were shooting and somebody walked on camera and it was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Who’s that?” [laughs]

Watching the film I thought of everything from 12 Monkeys to Green Room. What were your influences for this?

Bristol: Children of Men–that was our biggest influence. We basically never used long lenses on this movie unless it was for something very specific. But most of the time we really always stick with the actors as if [the camera] is another person in the room, which is something Children of Men had kind of done. We wanted the film to have the style of video games as well, like The Last of Us. So we really had to think: How would the world be different with a total lack of oxygen? We wanted to make it feel like a different planet. That’s the reason for having such an orange color, as well as having the buildings all crumbling–oxygen is a compound in how a lot of structures are being held up. So we sat down and thought really hard about all of it, all those elements.

With this and See You Yesterday, you’re really building a cohesive body of work. Do you see yourself continuing to do these Black-centered sci-fi stories? Is there other stuff you want to do?

Bristol: There’s definitely other stuff I’m itching to do, but definitely still in the vein of sci-fi, action thrillers, what have you. Another movie I’m working on right now, with my mentor Spike Lee as producer, is a big action adventure movie dealing with an American gunslinger who teams up with an Ethiopian princess to rescue an important figure in African history from the hands of Italian fascists. That movie’s like our own Black Indiana Jones kind of film. So I’m definitely excited about that one.

That sounds like a ton of fun.

Bristol: You know, the thing with having that sort of sci-fi [narrative] from a Black perspective, centered around Black characters… That kind of freshness, we don’t often see it. That’s why I want to continue making movies like this. I’m still working, you know. Writing and trying to find other scripts I believe I can put my spin on.


Breath is now playing in select theaters and is available to rent on SVOD.

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