After working on series such as Succession and 2019’s Watchmen, Cord Jefferson has made his feature directorial debut with American Fiction, a satire-meets-family-drama that picked up the top audience award at Toronto International Film Festival and is now coming to theaters this holiday season. Following Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), a teacher and writer in a rut, he concocts an elaborate joke to get more fame and acceptance. It’s taken shocking seriously, setting off a series of misadventures exploring how white America is more willing to accept the most reductive, pandering stories of Black trauma versus something that rings holistically authentic.

Following its TIFF premiere and head of a release beginning this week, I spoke with Jefferson about the tonal balance of satire and comedy in the film, the varied range of influences, working with Jeffrey Wright and the incredible cast, collaborating with Rian Johnson, and more. Also, check back as the film expands wide for a breakdown from Jefferson on the film’s ending.

The Film Stage: For as hilarious and biting the satire and comedy can be, I really appreciated how grounded you kept Monk’s family dynamics and personal struggles. How important was it to you to find and play with that balance?

Thank you. Fom the very beginning I said that I wanted the movie to be satirical but never farcical. And I was always worried and concerned that the satire would tip over into farce, and I wanted to make sure that we avoided that trap. Besides, just from an emotional standpoint––like, I really like the stuff with Monk’s family and Lorraine and Maynard and the wedding and that kind of stuff. I like that storytelling, but from a technical level I think that one of the reasons why that stuff is really important is: it helps ground the satire. Whenever you have those kind of broader comedic beats dealing with the book world stuff, you generally come off of that into a more emotional moment with the family. I think that always helps to ground the narrative in a way. I think that had we just leaned too heavily into the satirical stuff––not that there’s not a good movie in there somewhere, but I just feel like that becomes more slapstick and silly than I wanted.

And so for me, the goal was to always keep it in-between. My goal was, essentially, to feel what life is like, which is neither comedy nor tragedy. Frequently it’s both those things in the same day, sometimes the same hour. So I just wanted to walk the line between those two poles and feel like this is what life is like. I never wanted it to feel like just a straightforward comedy movie. That was always a concern of mine. 

Jeffrey Wright has been great for decades now, but his performance is great here. While it’s a dialogue-heavy script, there’s a lot of moments where feel his anger and frustration in just the physicality of his performance with his reactions. How early did he come onboard, and what conversations did you have with him about that physicality?

So I started reading the novel Erasure. During my first read, I started reading it in Jeffrey’s voice. That’s how early I started thinking of him for the character of Monk. Before I’d even sat down to write the script, I was like, “Jeffrey Wright would be perfect for this role.” And so he’s the first person we went to when the script was done. He didn’t sign onboard immediately. He and I had a few conversations over the course of a few months, and he read the script a few times and then he read the book and then he would come back to me and ask me some probing questions about my intentions with the film and the tone that I was aiming for and the other actors I was thinking about. So we sort of did this dance for a few months, and then he came aboard.

We never fully discussed… we didn’t have any time, really, or money, so there weren’t a lot of rehearsals or anything. Jeffrey and I would talk on the phone every now and again, and then he arrived a few days before we started shooting, so he and I could sort of talk about the scenes and get to build a rapport. But as far as really digging into the character, there was no time for that. And so it was just kind of run-and-gun in many ways. But I think that what you’re talking about is something that I really liked and wanted to lean into, which is that I think that he is just so subtle. He’s such a subtle comedic talent. The reason that I really liked Jeffrey for the part was that he’s a very classically trained sort of theater actor and has done a lot of great film and TV. And so I knew that he wasn’t going to come in and be very broad, which I liked. And so I anticipated a lot of those facial movements and those kind of very subtle, subtle reactions to other people.

One of the reasons why I cast the other people to interact with Jeffrey is that he’s just a really, really good straight man and putting, like, Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae, Erika Alexander, and Tracee Ellis Ross––these people who have this really natural effervescence and really natural buoyancy to them––I feel like they were the perfect people to play off of him, because I knew that he was going to come in and be a little prickly and subtle. And so having somebody like Sterling K. Brown, who’s just much bigger with his character, was exactly sort of the dynamic that I was looking for. Jeffrey and I sort of found the character as we went, but I’m delighted with where it ended up. 

I know Rian Johnson’s company produced American Fiction as well as Chloe Dumont’s Fair Play, two directorial debuts this year that are so sharply edited and have a real voice. Neither really feel like debuts. What did he and his company do to help nurture the project?

So it’s not like Rian’s there all the time. Rian certainly saw early cuts of the film and he and I had conversations. I worked much more closely with his partner, Ram Bergman, and the direct producers on my film, Ben LeClair and Nikos Karamigios. Rian’s influence is just that he loves movies. He loves filmmaking and he really loves working with newer voices. He actually believes, “Let’s give people an opportunity to flex their muscles and see what they can do, even if they haven’t done it before.” He just really fosters an environment of being good to the filmmaker and letting the filmmaker say what they want to say and make the movie that they want to make. It’s a testament to the environment in which you’re allowed to work that I think that these movies, like Chloe’s movie and my movie, are really personal to us. You can see our voice and ourselves in it a lot. It doesn’t feel like a Rian Johnson movie, you know what I mean? Rian Johnson isn’t just looking for people who are trying to make movies in the style of Glass Onion. He wants to make an environment in which people can tell their own stories and have their own voice and we will foster environment in which those kinds of voices can flourish. He helped along the way, but it’s more that he founded this company [T-Street Productions] based on ideals that are important to him and Ram.

There was this article in The Wrap a few weeks back about this program that T-Street has with MRC. It’s kind of this incubator in which MRC gives money to T-Street to foster emerging voices and smaller-budget filmmakers. And they called me to interview me for it and I was like, “Oh, wait, was I a part of this?” And they were like, “Yeah.” And it was crazy, because I never felt like I was like JV or sitting at the kids’ table. It was, like, full speed ahead with all their resources and they were super helpful and they were very, very, very close to the project the entire time in a way that I just felt like every other movie they might be making. This movie could have a budget of $50 million and I think they would still be just as involved. It wasn’t like this was lower on the totem-pole priority list for us because it’s a smaller movie and you’re a first-time filmmaker. It felt like they were really involved at the outset. I’d work with them forever. It’s such a great environment in which to work.

The film does a tricky thing, taking very complex issues, but then inviting an audience to be part of the conversation by using this vessel of comedy. There’s more to talk about afterwards versus something more didactic. It reminded me a bit of Spike Lee, like Bamboozled where you are confronting the audience first and foremost. Were there any films that were signposts for you in this regard? Even though it’s not been done effectively in a while, it was refreshing to see someone take on this kind of tone.

Thanks. Yeah, Spike Lee is certainly an influence and Bamboozled is certainly an influence, just like the way that all of Spike Lee’s work is an influence on me. But I think that, for me, a more direct influence––a real spiritual predecessor to this film––is a movie called Hollywood Shuffle that I watched probably the first time when I was eight years old and it blew my mind. Obviously, I think I was a little too young to understand what satire was, but I think that the effect that it had on me was… I had been confronted with issues of race and racism throughout my life. It’s obviously a big part of when you’re growing up, you study civil rights and you see all these sad documentaries and stuff. And this was the first time that I’d ever really encountered something that was like, “Oh, we’re going to talk about these serious issues and we’re just going to laugh the entire time. We’re going to make fun of it and enjoy ourselves the whole time.”

And that was revelatory to me. I was like, “Wait a minute, you’re allowed to laugh at this stuff and you don’t have to be so self-serious and morose when you’re talking about it?” And so I think that, for me, was a real big moment and a real, like, “You can do this and it can work.” In fact, not only can you do it, you probably should do it, because if you can’t find a way to laugh through the tragedy and the pain, then you’re going to be miserable your entire life. And so that was big for me.

I really love Network. Network has always been one of my favorite satires, and I feel like the thing that Network does really well is it just plays it really grounded. There’s a world in which that movie gets farcical and crazy and the steady hand with which they made that movie I really appreciate. I watched a bunch of other race satires. I watched Putney Swope, which I had never seen before I made this movie. And then I watched Sorry to Bother You, which I rewatched. I went and watched this movie called Chameleon Street.

Ah, I love that movie.

Yeah, I had never seen Chameleon Street, but I really dug it when I watched it. Then other movies which really shaped me and were influential on me. I really love Nicole Holofcener, she is a huge influence for me. I think early Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale was a movie that I referenced a lot when I was talking about this movie. I just think that Nicole Holofcener and Noah Baumbach, they do a really good job of finding that tone of life, that tone of humor and drama in the same moment. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama––it’s just sort of what life feels like. Friends with Money was huge for me and Squid and the Whale was huge for me. Also Wonder Boys I referenced a lot. I really love the tone of Wonder Boys. Obviously it’s about another writer, but I think that, besides that, the tone of it and the look of it I always really liked and was a reference point for us in making the film.

American Fiction opens in limited release on December 15 and expands wide on December 22.

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