Joe Talbot in conversation with Amayzing Movies
Filmmaker Joe Talbot talked about his debut film The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which is out in the UK this week. Click here to access our review. Among many issues, he explained the location's choices and gentrification in SF caused by tech money. Joe seems to agree with Martin Scorsese that there isn't enough funding for narrative films.
Amayzing Movies: Hi Joe, my name is Maysa, I am Brazilian and I've recently been to San Francisco. I know about the Mission [a district in SF] and all the homeless there. I think that that scene you show the sign from the window is very symbolic. I wanted you to tell me about the process between you believing in the project, the crowdfunding campaign, and then getting Plan B [Brad Pitt's production company] to back it.
Joe Talbot: In reflection now it was a very unusual process, but I think I didn't feel unusual [when I started] because it was the only one we got to know. It's not typically how movies are going to be. Part of that is. The conversations that Jimmie [Fails] and I had growing up in San Francisco, wanting to turn those into a film. But what began with just the two of us quickly expanded in the early stages to is like film family and coming in around. And part of that was, you know, I'm a high school dropout. Jimmie has never acted on anything. So we knew that we weren't the most bankable pair in the world. "Hey, do you want to give us a couple million dollars to make this movie?" Most people in their right minds were interested. And so we shot a very funky concept trailer. We shot this concept trailer early on that was essentially a very cheap version of the opening sequence of the movie, but he [Jimmie] escaped to the city. But in our concept trailer, Jimmie was telling his grandfather the story that inspired the film. And I shot it, and edited it, and scored it, and we put it online. And it actually ended up being this accidental calling card where people started writing to us telling their problems in the city, like I said, we hadn't been aware of that before. But for people that were a bit closer to San Francisco we basically got a bunch of letters saying how can we help make this movie?
AM: There were 1700 people that signed the crowdfunding, right?
JT: Yeah, I mean, it was really like this kind of groundswell. Yeah, for a film. I meet many people today and they go: "I haven't seen the movie yet. But I gave you $10 on Kickstarter".
JT: So it did really something. We were fortunate with this small group that formed around it. Many of them were also Bay Area-based artists who were struggling with the same things. 'How can I survive here?'. And they really threw all of themselves into the movie. It's one thing for me and Jimmie because we grew up together. But to have this group of people who are just meeting us for the first time, like devote so much themselves to something, it really was an integral part of this film. Because not only was it difficult being the first film, but also San Francisco happens to be one of the hardest places in the entire country to make a film in.
AM: Is it? Why? Isn't there enough funding?
JT: There's not a lot of funding in general in the US for narrative film. But beyond that,
it can be very expensive. And so much like the wealth gap that exists in San Francisco, you know, outside of filmmaking. The movies that come there are often either huge Marvel films that go to the bridge, right? Or they're tiny indie films that are sneaking under the radar made for like $200,000. And we lived in this precarious place where we're nothing close to the Marvel movies, but we had a little bit more than a very tiny budget. And so it was a constant struggle that took this Herculean effort from everyone involved, to figure out how we can do something. There was for a budget pretty ambitious, we had a lot of exterior shots. We had a big cast, and a lot of things we wanted.
AM: How did you choose the locations? Were they all in the script? Or did you change them?
JT: That was part of the thing we discovered when we kind of built this family that all developed the story together. So it was always almost like a writers' room. As we were writing, we were scouting locations and casting. We found that for us, was very helpful to do it that way. We find a location we loved and we would end up writing it into the movie. So for instance, I think initially probably one of the first drafts, when Jimmie goes to see his dad, he immediately joined the interior. Yeah, but we found this beautiful building with the stage sign on it.
AM: Oh, yeah. That house.
JT: Yeah, yeah. So then we built the scene with this opera singer outside, it was someone else that we'd seen on one of our walks that we go on during our writing sessions, and we just start talking to him and he influenced the character. So I feel like, I enjoy that way of doing it, because I come from a family of journalists. And there was a sort of journalistic elements to the research and the world-building that we want to try to capture our San Francisco and archive it, because it's changing so quickly, like, half of the locations in the movie are unrecognisable at this point now. The city is changing fast. Like the housing projects, for instance, where Jimmie goes to the candy house, one brief scene, and the woman in West Kenny is arguing with the guy in the front of the line. Those are very famous housing projects in San Francisco called "Double Rock". It's been torn down the area all around Montgomery's house, it's very different. [...] It's like there's an apathy that I think is invading the spirit of San Francisco.
Man, it was not that way. It used to be weird growing up, you know, among all the homeless people in my neighbourhood. They are part of our community. They are not useless. And now they're treated like this despicable thing that no one wants to touch, reach, engage with. And some people pretend that they don't exist. Someone can be shouting on the streets in need of help. Or sometimes it's looking for someone to talk to. And people walk by like nothing.
AM: I got lost in Mission. Because I was searching for a street art with Robin Williams, And the homeless led me to where the street art is.
JT: Right because they know the city better than anything.
AM: But nobody told me beforehand, how, how was that place? And I said, Well, I surrender. Let's go. And I think that's the spirit of San Francisco. Tell me more about this experience of being a first feature film director. And also the score of the film.
JT: It's really important to say that this film comes out of collaboration. So, there aren't many people I could imagine making this movie with. And in terms of the music and the cinematography, man, like I met two lifetime collaborators when I started making this film. Adam [Newport], our cinematographer. I met Adam 10 days before we shot. I had another DP, I lost him at the last second, Adam stepped in and he was a hero. I mean, we were shooting crazy long days. And then he shot that was thing at night, when he should have been sleeping. He could have very well come in, and had every excuse to like, carve out some time for himself to be a human being. But he's so deeply obsessed and focused on, wanting to make sure everything feels right. At one point when he and I were in pre-production, it was getting scared with two days out. We were sort of going back and forth. And he stopped me to say: 'I just want to make sure that I really honour the story because I know you and Jimmie have been living with it your whole life'. And I think everybody passionate brings to light something out of that. I deeply respect him. He's a special person. And Emile [Mosseri] is similarly obsessive. He never scored a feature film before. But he wanted to make a story working with us. And so it's orchestral, like the music he wrote for the house. He said he wanted to build a church, with the organs that are built in there and being a sort of holy place in some ways. So I feel so lucky those guys made my dreams come true.