At the tail end of my interview with American Fiction director Cord Jefferson, I asked him a brief question about finding the right tone for the ending of this directorial debut. Much to my surprise, he went deep into all aspects of the final moments: the extensive process of finding the right beat to conclude on, where he drew inspiration from for the meta ending, the test screening reactions, and more. With the film now out in wide release, it’s the opportune time to share this behind-the-scenes look at crafting the perfect finale.
As a refresher: Despite his desire for it not to receive recognition, Monk’s book “Fuck” wins the literary prize. At this point, Jefferson smashes to black and we cut to a new scene on the set of a new film: Plantation Annihilation, directed by Wiley (Adam Brody). Wiley and Monk are reviewing the end of Monk’s screenplay for American Fiction, and Wiley doesn’t like the “smash to black” finale. He says “Monk the character should say something” at the end. We then see a couple of different pitched endings: one where Monk leaves the ceremony after his book’s victory and asks for forgiveness from Coraline and another in which Monk is shot to death while accepting the award, the murderous authorities assuming he is the actual fugitive Stagg Leigh and that the award is a gun. This last one, of course, is the ending Wiley loves and plans to make. In the final moments, we see Monk drive off the set of Plantation Annihilation with his brother, staring back at an extra in a slave costume enjoying his lunch break, a bittersweet act of acceptance to play the cards Hollywood is dealing to make it in the business.
The Film Stage: When it comes to the ending, after you kind of pull the rug out from under the audience, the final button shows how maybe Hollywood will always stay the same. There’s this interesting mix of pessimism and optimism. Can you talk about finding that moment?
Cord Jefferson: Yeah, that moment took a while to find. So the original ending to the novel is the first ending. Monk steps up to the microphone and then the book’s over and you have no idea what he’s going to say. The original ending to the script was the second ending where he goes to Coraline’s house and says, “I need to apologize. I haven’t been myself lately.” And I always knew that was not the right ending. I was like, “This is a clever turn of phrase. I haven’t been myself lately.” And so that’s kind of funny, but I always knew that that wasn’t the appropriate ending to the film. And so I was struggling to come up with what it was. I was on a long drive to a wedding in the desert in California, and I was talking to Ben LeClair, one of the producers, and we were like two or three months away from, like, pre-production. He was like, “We really need to figure out what the ending is.” And I was like, “I know.” And so he said, “The piece of advice I can give you is just try to come up with an ending that feels as audacious as the rest of the film. The film is a big swing, so try to come up with an ending that feels like a big swing.” And so I thought, “Okay, I’ll do that.”
And so I went and slept on it that night. And then I woke up for whatever reason, I started thinking about The Player, that Robert Altman movie. And I was like, “Maybe there’s an interesting meta ending because the book is a little metatextual. What’s a meta way that we could do this?” And so then that ending just poured out of me. So I wrote it in, like, 15 minutes. And what I wrote in, like, 15 minutes was the original three endings. And when he gets shot and the producer says, “Great.”––it used to be that Monk just looked down the barrel and said “fuck” right into the camera. He just sort of directly said “fuck.” And then that was the initial ending. So that was the first ending that we put in the film.
And then we had a test screening and it was very divided. It was like 45% of the audience said, “We love the ending, do not change it.” But there was also a large percentage of the audience that said, “This ending was clever and intellectually satisfying, but it wasn’t emotionally satisfying,” because some people were left with the question, “Well, wait a minute, were those people real then? Does Monk have a brother? Does he have a sister? Was this just all a figment of his imagination that he was coming up with to write this movie?” So I sat down to think, “Okay, what’s something that we can do that isn’t having a stupid ending just to clarify, like, yes, this was real.” And so I was like, “What can we do that, again, feels of a piece with the rest of the film that can be a nice coda that will satisfy this note of ‘I’m not sure if these people are real,’ but also have a little bit of bite the way that the rest of the film has a little bit of bite.”
What if he comes out and sees Cliff [Sterling K. Brown’s character], because I wanted it to be Cliff and not Coraline. I thought if it was Coraline, it would have been a little too sappy and also not the point of the film. It’s a better ending if these two brothers find their way back to each other as opposed to “Monk gets the girl.” Who cares if Monk gets the girl? You want Monk to find his way back to somebody who’s loved him for years. That felt right to me. And then it was like, “But what could be happening out there? Well, it’s Plantation Annihilation, so there would be people around in slave costumes. And so what if he sees somebody in a slave costume?” When I came up with that, that to me was the perfect final moment.
Because, to me, the end of Monk’s journey is: he finds his way back to his brother and he finds a way to stop alienating himself from everybody in his life who loves him. But also, the start of the film is Monk very much on this high horse, [thinking], “You guys who are playing slaves and writing these kinds of books are losers and you’re wasting your time. And I make superior art. And you guys make garbage art and it’s embarrassing.” The way that I interpret that final moment is Monk has realized hat these artists that he was looking down at in the beginning––like him––are just working within the confines of a system that was made generations before any of them got there. And so I think that what he’s seeing is like, “Oh, this guy just wants to be an actor and this is what he has to do to be an actor.” In the way that is sort of like, “This is what I had to do to get my movie made. I had to concede and let this guy give me this stupid ending where the Black guy gets killed by the cops at the end. So I’m complicit in this system. It’s just a system that people are forced into. So I’m finally seeing this guy for what he is, which is just a guy trying to have a creative life and live as an artist. This is what he has to do in order to do that sometimes.”
To me, it’s the kind of cynicism that I like, which is cynicism, but I think the hopefulness there is that Monk is like, “We’re all in this together. I no longer want to antagonize you and I no longer want to look down on you.” It’s more like, “I see this for what it is and best of luck to you.” So it’s not just super-saccharine, like Monk learns to be friends with everybody! He’s realizing that this is a system and this is an institution. And that’s been my problem that I haven’t understood from the beginning.
American Fiction is now in wide release.