Three years after making a splash among indie enthusiasts with his feature This is Martin Bonner, writer-director Chad Hartigan has brought another film to Sundance. But whereas the former was about an old man navigating the barren, grayscale landscape of Sparks, Nevada, Morris from America is aglow with lusty colors and youthful energy. The film centers on young Morris, played by newcomer Markees Christmas, and his difficulty adjusting to life as a black American boy in Heidelberg, Germany. Craig Robinson (of The Office fame) plays Morris’ father, Curtis. At Sundance, we sat down with Hartigan, Robinson, and Christmas to discuss the making of the film and the development of its characters.
The Film Stage: How did you find Markees for the project?
Chad Hartigan: I had friends who were familiar with this YouTube series he was in called Markees Vs. They emailed me about him, telling me to check it out, because they knew I was looking for a very specific type.
How did you get involved with that series?
Markees Christmas: I was 12 years old when we made my first YouTube video. So … about 2011 or 2012. I first started acting because I needed extra credit so I could go to the next grade when I was in sixth grade. They were like, “The only way you could pull your grade up is if you participate in the school play,” which was A Raisin in the Sun. So I auditioned for Travis, thinking I would only have a few lines and I could just pass the class. They ended up giving me part of Walter … It was crazy.
My mom told Matt [Hill] I was in this play, and that I could act. He was working on a project for Channel 101. He was like, “Oh, I gotta see this.” So he came, he saw that I could act, and he told me, “You gotta do a show with me!” And that’s where it all started.
Stylistically, this is quite distinct from This is Martin Bonner. That film was very straightforward, subdued. This one is bright and colorful and uses iris-ins and -outs and slow-mo and such.
Hartigan: It’s actually the same approach, in that I want the style to be dictated by the POV of the main character. Martin Bonner was a calm, 60-year-old man living alone, and his film reflected that. But this had to be through the eyes of a 13-year-old experiencing all these emotions for the first time. How do you tell that visually? It’s not gonna be done the same way as Martin’s story.
I like the challenge of trying to branch out and do something different stylistically, to add flourishes that aren’t realism. I actually find realism to be easier. I don’t know if everyone feels that way. But it’s hard to do something like this, because people could very easily be like “That’s stupid.” But that’s what we were trying to do: Be true to the point of view of the character.
You play a dad in this film, with a lot of emphasis on the father-son relationship. How’d you build that kind of character?
Craig Robinson: I’m not a father, but I did draw on my experiences with my father. For instance, how I would feel, you know, when I would be disciplined. So it was a lot about pulling … especially stern stuff, you know? Like the moment when [Morris] curses, I had a natural, like, “Hey! We don’t do that here” reaction. And that was my father coming out. But I was also drawing from my mother’s perspective. She was super sweet. Curtis is a single father, so he’s gotta be both father and mother to him.
The script dictated where to go. The script was why I did it in the first place. I know this character, I knew him. I could just see the dynamic between Morris and Curtis. It was painted for me in my brain, through the words. And I used what was on the page with my imagination. I’d think about this character, and how he must feel. The love of his life, Morris’ mother, is gone. So with him and Morris, it was like a “We’re both in this together” kind of thing. Curtis doesn’t wanna lose him. “Let’s just work together,” you know?
So I understand that you based a lot of the script on your childhood, how you grew up in Cyprus and wrote bad rap lyrics and such. How did it morph into a story about a black kid in Germany?
Hartigan: It was always Germany. The reason for that’s not too interesting, unfortunately. It was the most recent country I had visited when I started writing, and so it was fresh. I’d been to Ireland in 2005, then not back to Europe again until 2010. So I felt it was the only country there I really had a clear picture of to work with. It didn’t have to be Germany; it could’ve changed along the way. But Germany is an amazing place.
I honestly don’t remember when it became a black character. It was pretty early on, and it wasn’t actually when I was writing. I was just thinking about the movie a lot. When not actively writing, I think things like “Oh, that could be a good scene,” or “We should put that in the movie.” “Maybe they’ll take a day trip to Frankfurt to like, see a show.” If I sit down and look at at a blank page without a lot of ideas already, it’s too daunting.
So there’s it came to me in this period, maybe when I was thinking about the hip-hop stuff, because I knew I maybe wanted to include that story. And yeah, Morris’ rap lyrics are the real rap lyrics I wrote, and which my mom found. I was like, “That’d be a good scene, but what if my mom was more mad because they were really bad than because they were dirty?” And then I was like, “Well, what kind of character is that? Would it probably be a dad? What kind of dad would try to use hip-hop?” I don’t know how, but it just kinda happened, and seemed to turn the movie from the kind of thing I’ve seen before into something that I haven’t seen before.
I’ve seen plenty of movies about white kids growing up and going through painful adolescence while being sensitive and kind of awkward. But taking a black character who’s deep into hip-hop, and wants to be seen as tough, but deep down is really a sensitive kid … I haven’t seen a character like that. That made it exciting to sit down and try to figure out. It was also challenging and daunting ‘cause, I mean, who am I to tell that story? But I believe in that thing people say — If it’s not scary, you shouldn’t do it. I wanted to try to do it, and to do it with respect and authenticity.
Alienation is a big theme in the film. There’s sort of an amplification of the subtle prejudices black people face when they’re a minority. Did you draw on any real-life experience in portraying how Curtis navigates this environment?
Robinson: Before I was in the limelight — and I didn’t get to Hollywood until I was an adult — I could be invisible in some respects. People just don’t pay attention. Or I could also just be an instant suspect. Like, “Oh, what’s he doing?” In respect to that, the Germans in the movie often treat Curtis like he’s invisible. There’s this scene in a bar that’s like his first time hanging out with his co-workers, and they’re all struggling to figure out what to say to each other. As far as the suspect thing, that’s seen with Morris. There’s the scene where the guys at the community center find a joint, and he’s the automatic suspect.
Hartigan: There was gonna be a scene where Morris and Curtis go to the only baptist church in Heidelberg, and they were gonna be the only black people there. But it wasn’t in our budget to do it.
What was it like working on your first feature film?
Christmas: It was difficult. Very different from my past experiences doing these small five-minute skits. It took some adjusting, because there’s a lot more to it. Everything has to be perfect — in Markees Vs., as far as stuff like continuity, we didn’t really have to worry about the small things we were doing.
Hartigan: And you hated downtime. You hated not shooting. Some actors would love to take ten-minute breaks, but you were like, “Nooo, let’s keep shooting.”
Is there anything in your own life you brought to playing Morris? Things you share in common with him?
Christmas: Well, there’s his relationship with his dad. That’s the biggest thing that me and Morris have in common.
Robinson: If I could butt in … There’s a real-life Katrin [Morris’ love interest in the film], too, isn’t there? There’s some real-life sparks there.
[Christmas looks deeply embarrassed.]
You don’t have to talk about that, don’t worry.
Christmas: [Laughs] Oh, yeah yeah …
Wait, how old are you now?
Christmas: I’m 16 … Am I allowed to talk to [reporters] about girls right now?
We ran out of time at this point, so Christmas escaped any further good-natured embarrassment from his co-workers.
Morris From America premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by A24 on August 19.