34th Street Magazine: How much of your film is based on lived college experience? What kinds of research did you do beforehand?
Justin Simien: Some of it was my experience. My college was mostly white and people weren’t necessarily from diverse communities, so they were experiencing people from other communities for the first time. It was a bit of a culture shock. My friends and I were marveling at the fact that we had to explain ourselves all the time. We were having this conversation about black identity that was new and fresh. I wanted to speak to it in a movie, to make something for my generation that was part of a new conversation. So, it was partially based on my experiences, but a lot of it I found through research. Certainly the blackface party phenomenon, a lot of that was researched. I wanted to fig ure out how these things happen and the attitudes that lead to them.
Street: What do you have to say to students who, like your characters, are dealing with these issues of race on their college campuses?
JS: You have to be willing to have the conversation. We need to find a way to have these conversations in a safe and non–threatening way. We need to be willing to see ourselves in people that don’t look like us. And those are things you learn how to do in college. Frankly, the generations running the world haven’t figured out how to do this yet. We don’t have to forge the same path.
Street: Has there been any or do you foresee any backlash against your film? What would you say to someone who might be offended by it or uncomfortable with it?
JS: I think the role of art is to challenge us. It’s just a movie. It’s just a title. I think it’s possible that if you are really offended by it, it is striking a nerve that might be true. You should see the film before you have an opinion. The idea of white people being put in a box is admittedly controversial and that is dealt with in the film too. The movie takes everyone to task.
Street: Have any of the responses that you have gotten over the years of working on this project fueled the fire of your writing?
JS: Definitely. I really did try to have all of the voices, the dissenting voices too. So, a lot of the time when characters are disagreeing, I pulled that directly from things people said. You have to be willing to listen to the voice of the minority. The only way you can become a better citizen of the world is if you can be comfortable standing in someone else’s truth.
Street: What's the most interesting or surprising response you've gotten so far?
JS: I love it when people who don’t look anything like the characters see themselves so clearly in one. It’s very cool to have, say, a woman in her forties or fifties tell me how much she identified with Coco. It’s so great to see people so different finding something true in the film for themselves. I hope that that happens when we open.
Street: What do you hope the takeaway is from your film?
JS: I would like people leaving thinking about the ways in which they are authentic to who they really are. At the end of the day, my movie is about identity and the conflict between who we are and who we say we are, and I think that is universal.
Street: What was the best thing you learned in college?
JS: Wow. I’m going to give a nerdy film answer.
Street: Good, we like nerdy.
JS: I took a class called “Acting for Non-Actors,” taught by Joel Moffett, and I really didn’t want to take it, but it was a requirement for film majors. I went in and Joel Moffett broke down every film to its spine. He was the first person who taught me that Star Wars isn’t about science fiction or a space odyssey. It’s about doubt. He had a way of distilling movies down to the one point they were trying to make, and his concept was that once you know the one point the movie is trying to make, all of your decisions could be based off that little kernel.
Street: So, what’s your kernel?
JS: Identity versus self: the war between those two concepts in making us who we are.
Street: What’s your worst college memory?
JS: I had an interesting series of roommates. I had a pretty bad string of just incompatible living situations my first three years of college. That made things very interesting.
Street: A few of the characters in your film have some interesting room assignments…
JS: They do. All I will say is that there are some autobiographical threads very carefully hidden in the film.
Street: Something that I thought was one really powerful were the pictures at the end of real college parties like the one in the film. Can you talk about that decision?
JS: I felt like you would watch the movie in a completely different way if you knew this stuff happened. It wasn’t even about making a point. It was the perfect way to button that film. This is a satire and a hyper real place, but it is very much rooted in reality.
Street: So it was an easy decision to make?
JS: For me, it was super easy. I was like absolutely this is how it has to end. The rest was just making sure that it could be okay legally. It wasn’t something I planned when I wrote it, but it just made so much sense.
Street: What advice would you give to students hoping to make it in the film industry?
JS: Make sure you are telling a story you just can’t live without. This is a very difficult business, and it’s very harrowing to get a story into being a film, so it has got to be something that you are willing to live with for a long time. You gotta find that story that lights you on fire.