There’s a rhythm to The Inspection, written and directed by Elegance Bratton, that holds the viewer’s attention from minute one. A bristling opening quickly catapulted into an intense central narrative. Fitting snugly into the engaging subgenre of boot camp pictures, Bratton’s film tells the story of Ellis French, a Black, gay young man on a quest for purpose. Jeremy Pope plays French with aplomb, a star-making turn to be sure. Gabrielle Union and Bokeem Woodbine also put in great work in supporting roles.
As the film opens in theaters, The Film Stage had the pleasure of speaking with Bratton about his narrative debut, its autobiographical origins, the challenges in getting it made, and the truly singular score that drives both the pace and the character motivation.
The Film Stage: I watched the film last night and was reading some press ahead of this interview. I saw you mentioned An Officer and a Gentleman as one of the films that inspired you when preparing to make The Inspection. So I was rewatching some of An Officer and a Gentleman last night and was struck by both Hackford’s opening minutes and the opening minutes in your film. Both movies just start. In The Inspection, the viewer is immediately with Ellis (Jeremy Pope) and wondering “what’s going on? Who is this person?” and then gets really intense really fast. How do you decide on setting the pace like that so early, how do you get there creatively?
Elegance Bratton: I think one of my favorite ways to open a script is in media res: in the middle of things. For me, you know, it’s weird. It’s like one side of my head, I call myself a half-academic. On one side of my head, I’m very much aware of cultural theory and The Gaze and The Black Gaze and The White Gaze and that kind of thing. So I can’t say that I’m not aware of it. But I try to find that middle ground between the conceptual anomaly of being a Black gay man telling a story through cinema and being a director and a writer in the position to tell my own story, right? And making sure that I’m aware of that anomaly and using it to my advantage rather than having it use me. So when it comes down to it, I personally––and mind you the question you’re asking in a question I was asked in film school too, like “where is the intro? Why are we just starting in the middle of everything?” And it’s really because I think that’s my way of bringing the viewer into my skin. There’s a moment in every person of color’s life, especially for Black people, where you realize: “Oh, my gosh, reality is different for me than everybody else. The things that are easy for others to do will be hard for me because I’m Black.” And you may not really see yourself.
W.E.B. Dubois called it double consciousness. The Black person seeing themselves through The White Gaze. So I’m trying to interrupt a visual thing that has been so kind of formulaic of how the Black experience is presented on film. It’s automatically assumed that the audience for high art cinema is white. They don’t know Black people. So you have to explain everything about the character in order to deal with the problematic reality of segregation and racism [in which] white folks don’t have to know who you are in order to live their life, but you have to know who you are. So by starting in the middle of things, by dropping you in, I’m trying to level the playing field a little bit and make the audience take him in as a human being in his own right, rather than as a subject, not for deception.
To your point, the viewer is immediately aware of who this person is and what he’s up against. And from there you’re grabbing from other films of this ilk and kind of redefining them and evolving them if that’s the right word…
Stealing them! Robbing them! [Laughs]
Re-adapting them! But I love the idea––and this isn’t unlike An Office and a Gentleman––of Ellis’ solution being “Look, I enlisted!” and that being a very legitimate and one of the only ways to have a chance for someone in his situation and some many like him. It’s obviously been covered in some respects, but you do a great job of underlining that throughout the movie. I’m sure you’ve answered this before but because it is an impressive feat of indie filmmaking, explain the process of getting this film made.
Yeah, it took a minute. I wrote the first draft of this 2017, when I was a student at NYU Grad Film. I sold my first TV show––My House––to Viceland, which is a documentary series about the ballroom scene. And I finally had a little bit of money, so I was like, “Oh, I will never be in a place where I don’t have to work for six months ever again in my life. Let me write some scripts and see which one to go with.” So I wrote three in about a month. I went to my partner––creative partner, life partner, and love of my life––Chester Algernal Gordon, and producer of The Inspection, and I asked them: “Look, which one should I go with?” And Chester let me know that he felt my greatest talent as a filmmaker was to bring the audience to a place that they can never go without me. And the uniqueness of my experience in the Marine Corps was very much that place. So we sat down, wrote it, I submitted it. I had a buddy of A24 who just got hired. I brought it to him in 2017 and was like, “Bro, this is an A24 movie, man. You’re gonna want this.” He read it and was like, ‘This is not an A24 movie. I do not want this!’
And then I applied to all the labs in the world, United States. I got rejected to all the labs in the world, in the United States. And then I was kind of over it and said screw it, I’ll just go into the business out loud. The actual mainstream film business, indie [film] business what have you. Knock on every door, talk to every executive. Somebody is going to say yes. And Chester ended up applying to the Tribeca All Access grant and we got it. We got into the Tribeca Film Institute. We got a chance to pitch the movie. And then that pitching session was really helpful to me because repeating it sixty times in a few days really helped me to refine it. I changed my logline, I changed a little bit of story in that moment trying to sell it to people. Rewrote that draft again, then Chester took that draft and applied to the Producing Lab at Film Independent, got in, and then we got another round of notes from their mentors and other producers or colleagues within the lab, which were like really breakthrough notes for me. People ask a lot about how I differentiate what makes it into a movie from my life and then what just stays with you from your life. That note session was really helpful for me to [make] those delineations.
Then we got into Fast Track from Film Independent. We took sixteen meetings in three days. We actually got twelve offers. So I wrote my buddy at A24. I sent him a GIF of Harry Potter riding the train to Hogwarts, waving goodbye. And I was like, “The train’s leaving the station. You want to jump on? Jump on!” And they jumped on and then right before I had that conversation with my buddy at A24, [producer] Effie Brown had gotten the script through the Film Independent Lab and we had actually met her three years prior, but she had a lot going on. It wasn’t until she heard about it again a couple of years later that she called us and brought us in to express her interest in being a part of the project. And then we went back to A24 and they greenlit the movie and we got on set. But the craziest thing about it was that we were promised 23 [shooting] days. We shot in the summer in Mississippi. It was hot like the Bible, hot like Moses hot. Desert hot. And we ended up getting shut down because of COVID as well. So we ended up shooting the whole movie in nineteen days!
That’s crazy! Nineteen, wow.
Yeah. So it took five years to get to nineteen days [on set].
And what did shoot on? Alexa?
Yeah. Alexa with anamorphic lenses.
I wanted to ask, because it’s such a standout part of the movie, about the score…
Thank you for asking this.
Obviously, you’re working in platitudes and even though this story is your story and it’s very specific you are adding a narrative to a well-worn subgenre, and you’re still hitting familiar beats. So the score elevates above any expected tropes. How did that come about?
Well, it’s funny. All these interviews turn into love letters to my THUS-band. I call them a THUS-band because they’re non-binary.
But yeah, when I was a kid I was in a lot of different bands like punk rock bands, indie rock bands. And my favorite bands, one of my favorite artists ever is The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed. So Chester and I, having been together for eight years, is very aware of my musical tastes. And [Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective] is kind of like a seminal album for me that I would return to often during our relationship. We left New York City during the pandemic. Like everybody else who’s an artist in New York we realized our apartment was horrible, actually. Not a place to live in! So we bought a house in Baltimore because if we were going to buy a house we wanted to buy a house in the city where us buying a house helps the city, could help Black folks and Baltimore was a great place to do that. And a bunch of other filmmakers there, like Bradford Young, Terence Nance, and Radha Blank. All sorts of people. So we moved to Baltimore. When it came time to think about who’s going to do the score, Chester was like, “Why don’t you ask Animal Collective? Because they’re from Baltimore, and now we’re from Baltimore.” And I was like, “Yeah, of course I’ll ask Animal Collective.” And we reached out and they were really excited about it. They jumped right on that’s how they got involved.
Listen to Animal Collective’s full score above.
In terms of how we worked together, my main instruction to them was that the score is French. That’s number one. The score is French, his point of view, his interior life. Right. Jeremy has this thing he’s been saying lately that I really resonate with where he talks about what’s not on the page. And how understanding what’s not on the page informs his performance. I think from a musical standpoint, that was the mission for Animal Collective. And ultimately I gave them the prompt that Ellis French is looking for a new religion. That religion of kind of like eccentric, flamboyant, out queer Gay Rights Movement self didn’t yield anything. It resulted in him being homeless. So now he needs to understand he’s going to the Church of Masculinity, if you will, and once you looked at it like that, call-and-response became a huge element of how we approached the score. We use a lot of religious music from choral chanting to choral harmonics to Bhangra music to gospel music and Islamic prayer music as well. It’s very clear that when you go to boot camp, a part of this is like kind of rewiring the brain, washing the brain of the person that was to replace them with the person they’re going to become. But that was the desire of the lead character, so we go from an individual who thinks they’re not going to make it because they’re the weakest person in the world. I’m alone in my weakness to someone who understands that he’s part of a group of men, a world of men who’ve been given an impossible task of being a perfect marine and a perfect man. And the score is meant to bring that to life.
There is a heavy use of montage throughout the picture, but I think it’s well-utilized and -placed. When you’re in the editing room, that must be kind of an ongoing discussion of: “When is it too much montage? When does it feel like a crutch?”
Well, [our editor] Oriana Soddu, she [edited] Mother of George for Andrew Dosunmu, among others.
Yeah, his movies are the bomb dot com. [Oriana] was a real part of establishing the rhythm of the edit. Thematically, the movie is about the individual and the institution, right? It’s a pro-troop film but it’s not a pro or anti-military film. I have a belief that institutions change based on the dynamic relationships of individuals. Not the other way around. You can’t top-down force people to get along, but you can bottom-up notice how people get along and start to shift things around them. So from an editing perspective, it’s really the inverse of “Out of many comes one.” From one, you join the many. So the montage in that regard is a way of us to keep track of his physical development. The fact that he’s getting stronger but it’s also to keep track of the unit’s cohesion. When we start those montages, things are kind of staccato. People are missing their steps. People are out of beat. By the time we end the montage, they are moving as a fine-tuned machine. So then the montage becomes another element of French’s emotional journey, not merely a way of marking time. This is strength. This is weakness. This is isolation. This is intimacy. This is coming together. This is a unit. That’s how we wanted to use the montage to kind of animate and prop up the tenuous balance between physical transformation and emotional transformation.
The Inspection is now in theaters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.