Any filmmaker who gets their film into Sundance probably has their hopes considerably elevated for their future. By all means, that’s understandable. You get into the festival that help launched some terrific filmmakers, so it’s only natural to dream of the career Steven Soderbergh built for himself.
Nobody can fault a dreamer, but speaking with the writer/director behind one of this year’s Sundance favorites, Newlyweeds, it’s clear that Shaka King doesn’t expect millions to start flowing into his bank account at the drop of a festival hit.
King discussed that indie filmmaker reality with us for the theatrical release of his dramedy, which follows two potheads and their rocky relationship. It’s definitely a must-see this month, and King is a talent to keep close tabs on. Here’s what the young filmmaker had to say about his debut.
The film has an interesting tone. There’s a variety of scenes some people can see as depressing and others as comical.
To me, that’s what’s cool. I didn’t know that would be the case going in. I still think I did a good job controlling the tone of the movie, but it’s surprising how many jokes are sad moments for some people. I’ve found the movie to play one way and then play completely different in a theater. I’m proud of that, even though that wasn’t quite my intent. I didn’t know certain scenes, especially towards the end, would make people sad. I thought they were just darkly hilarious.
Did you see the tone changing on the set or did you discover it in front of an audience?
I never realized it on the set. I saw that in the editing. There’s one particular moment in the third act of the film, without spoiling it, where it takes a dark turn, but I think there’s a hilarious exchange where the main character talks with his drug dealer. I thought if I could boil the tone of this movie down to one scene, it would be that scene. It starts out serious and depressing, but right in the middle of that moment, we essentially mock how depressing his life is.
It also adds levity. Movies that deal with dug addicts generally take themselves very seriously.
Right, right. I never wanted to make that movie, because I don’t think that’s real. I think in the darkest moments there are moments of humor. I mean, even funerals can be really funny. I felt like I did that with the script, but I have to give a lot of credit to our actor in that scene, Hassan Johnson [as the drug dealer], because he just performed it impeccably.
You’ve called the movie a “stoner romantic comedy.” There aren’t many templates for that genre.
It’s funny, I described it as a stoner romantic comedy when I was first writing the early drafts, because that was just a way to sell it to my producers and financiers. That’s just such a catchy idea, but in reality, I think it’s more of a stoner drama than a romantic comedy. I don’t think it delivers on those romantic comedy moments, although there is the guy looking up at the window going, “I’m here, baby! I’ve changed my life! Come on!” In terms of movies that I referenced, I didn’t reference romantic comedies besides Coming to America.
The movie that had the biggest influence was this movie called Little Murders with Alan Arkin. When I was watching it, I thought, “This is how I want people to feel watching my movie. I don’t want them to know if they’re suppose to laugh or feel uncomfortable.” At first I had no idea how I hadn’t heard about that movie; it’s just groundbreaking. After Hours and Mean Streets were also influences. Mean Streets surprises people, but this is a very New York movie as well. It’s also a hilarious movie. There’s a reality and specificity to the jokes in Mean Streets.
Does Newlyweeds represent the kind of movies you want to keep making? Could you see yourself making that romantic comedy for 3,000 screens?
I think it would depend on the script, but I don’t think I’d ever write that. In fact, I know I wouldn’t. The stuff I write is a little edgier, in terms of tone and context. If I got the right script for a romantic comedy and I thought I could deliver on that level, then, yeah. Coming to America is a romantic comedy and that’s one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. If I ever got to make something like that, no way I would say no.
I’m sure you had a few scripts in your drawer, so what made you want to go with Newlyweeds first?
I had written two scripts before Newlyweeds and film school. Newlyweeds is actually my thesis film for NYU graduate film school. The two other scripts were just exercises in how to write a screenplay. I learned some things from them, but I felt writing this one I really learned how to write a screenplay. Saying that, I learned how to write a screenplay by directing that screenplay. That lesson of making the movie has informed my process of writing. If the scene has no drama, it has to go. In many ways, I consider Newlyweeds my first screenplay. It just came from a very organic place. Before I even had a story I had dialogue and vignettes, and I structured a story around that material.
When I get on the set I don’t really care about the screenplay. I care about the story and the moments we’re working towards, but it needs to feel real. I always said to my producer Jim [Wareck], “This feels too written.” I feel a screenplay is a piece of reading material to really just get money to make the movie and inform the story you’re trying to tell. When it comes time to shoot the film all I really want is reality in front of the camera, so I’ll quickly throw out dialogue if it sounds too written. Plus, when you cast someone appropriately, you just think they’re going to do a much better job than anything you’ve written.
Do non-actors help in that regard?
I feel strongly about mixing non-actors and actors. One of the influences on the movie is Flirting with Disaster and I think David O. Russell is…well, you do hear stories about him abusing his actors, but I take a lot of his methods in terms of keeping the material loose, real, and having non-actors and actors work together. We couldn’t find anyone to play the character Lyle tries to buy weed from, so I had my friend play him. There was another scene where I had my friend Paul come on and he ended up doing something that made us completely scrap a scene and build a new one out of a moment he created. You get so many gifts from non-actors.
Being your first feature, did the movie meet your expectations as to what to the process would be like?
I wonder if this is revisionist history. I remember we had Sundays off and I’d always think, “Ah man, this is painful.” When I was back on it, though, it seemed like a very easy process. I had expectations for it being a much more difficult shoot, especially this being my first time out. Really, I think my expectations were not quite dashed, but selling the movie and getting it out there is much more challenging than I thought it would be.
What kind of challenges?
I mean selling the movie to an audience, not so much to our distributor. There’s so much content out there that with television, short films, social media, and movies. We’re doing this on a shoestring budget. Our distributors don’t have the kind of money to buy a commercial during the All Star game. We’re up against a lot of challenges to let people know how to see it. I didn’t anticipate that. I thought, “Okay, I made a movie called Newlyweeds. I’m going to be rich! It’s got weed in the title! What’s more commercial than that?” [Laughs] It’s not that simple.
When you got an agent, did jobs start rolling in?
It’s not quite as…maybe it’d be different if I was based in Los Angeles. I’m happy with the job my agent is doing. I’ve had meetings both times I’ve been out in Los Angeles. It could be different, but I don’t necessarily think it’d be that different if I was out there. I don’t think my phone would be ringing off the hook with offers. I mean, you have to consider how many directors have made multi-millionare dollar features are having a difficult time making features.
I know that this is the window to strike in a lot of ways, because I’m only “hot” until the next Sundance. After that, it’s not going to matter as much I got a movie into Sundance. I can think of so many movies that have debuted there, had theatrical runs, and the directors haven’t had the chance to make another feature or, in some instances, shoot a commercial or direct a television show. I remember being in film school, thinking, “All I need to do is get into Sundance. Even if I get my shorts in there, the jobs are going to roll in.” Now, I ended up getting a feature into Sundance and right now I literally have 27 dollars in my bank account. You know, it’s not quite what I thought it’d be, but I’m happy and not complaining. Well, I am complaining a little bit [Laughs].
Newlyweeds is now in limited release and you can find where here.