'Blindspotting' Producers Jess And Keith Calder On The 10-Year Journey To Bring This Film To Life [Interview]

Blindspotting has been a labor of love for over a decade. It shows in the end result. Director Carlos López Estrada's hard-hitting drama, which also has a lot of laughs, has been drawing strong reactions ever since it premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. "Sharp, stylish, and sincere, Blindspotting may hook you with its flashy wordplay and slick visuals, but this is a hilarious and vital movie of the moment that's burning with empathy," our own Ben Pearson wrote in his review from the fest.

The more than warmly received drama hails from producers Jess and Keith Calder, the two behind Snoot Entertainment. Snoot Entertainment has been making films with strong voices behind them since their inception. From Anomalisa to The Guest to Blindspotting, the Calders have been putting out the sort of creative and imaginative movies we're always craving. The two producers recently took the time to take us behind the scenes of Blindspotting, including the project's development, shooting in Oakland, and plenty more.

Jess, I know  the project started from you sending an email to [star and co-writer] Rafeal [Casal]. How happy are you that you sent that email?

Jess: It's been over a decade of friendship, and this amazing creative partnership. I'm very excited that I found him on YouTube and that he was receptive. It's funny, because I finally got a chance to really spend some time with his mother, and she revealed to me that she didn't actually want him to go and meet with me initially, because she thought I was a creepy older woman stalking her young son. She was like, "I'm so relieved that you ended up not being a psychopath." I'm like, "Thanks. I'm pleased, too, because if you had said don't go, then we wouldn't be here." It's been an incredible journey.

What initially spoke to you about his writing? What did you connect with?

Jess: Have you ever had a chance to look at his work from when he was younger, by any chance?

I haven't yet. Blindspotting was my first introduction.

Jess: Well, it's a great introduction. The thing that I thought was so incredible about what he does in the film and also in his early work is that he speaks with a very honest emotion that I thought was so specific and unique to who he is. On top of that, if you watch his earlier work, it's clear to me that he actually really cares about how he commands an audience, so that he is a complete storyteller in that he's telling you a compelling story, but he's also keeping in mind, "How can I hook you? How can I draw you in in an emotional way?" For me, seeing that was definitely a lightning bolt moment. I think so many times you only get one or the other. You get someone who is an amazing artist, but isn't able to command the attention of an audience, or you have someone who only cares about, like, "Oh, I just want to make something that speaks to everyone. With Rafael, the thing that you can tell even with his early work, is that he cares about both

I'm sure it's a case by case basis, but what usually makes you both want to work with someone and think, "This is a voice I want to support"?

Keith: I think for us a lot of the time, it's just having a bunch of more informal conversations about what we all love about movies or stories or books or plays and figuring out if we have a shared taste. It doesn't have to be the same taste, but if we think the same things are important in equal measures, I think that would be part of it. I think that it's also just getting a sense of if we would work well together. There's a lot of different ways that that can manifest. You're out here trying to figure out if you are puzzle pieces that fit each other, in a way. It's like, this area where maybe you aren't experienced, and certain areas that we have a lot of experience in or are the areas where Jess and I really know how something should be done.

But a lot of it is that, it's just feeling each other out and figuring out if you think you'll be good collaborators. Then, once that's done, then it's about figuring out, well, what's the thing you want to collaborate on. A lot of that for us is more about figuring out would we work well together in a pleasant way, but also would we work well together in a way that we could enhance each other's creative abilities in the process of making movies. Then, it's about figuring out what we actually want to all say.

Were there any other ideas discussed at that initial lunch meeting you had with Rafael?

Keith: This was a long time ago, so it's hard to remember specifics, but I think a lot of it was Jess and I both were excited about the idea of making a movie universe in a way that musicals tend to use song.

Jess: Yeah. The initial idea was that's pretty much your story that you are passionate about telling, where you can use this verse kind of language to allow the characters in the film to express their emotion in a way that hasn't ever been seen on film, that was the initial talk. Then about, I want to say, a couple months later, he sent me a poem called Monster, which I think you can actually find his performance of online still. It's basically all about him being frustrated and sad that so many of his friends were dying young in Oakland, and how he's dealing with all of those emotions. I know that for a while, that was what we were trying to circle around. I mean, I don't think we had a specific idea of what it was, but it was more of the steam from that initial piece of work and how we could translate that.

Keith: Yeah. I think style-wise we ended up very different from this, but I think one of the initial films we talked about a lot was Once, and how Once approached music and approached empathy for characters, and the idea that everyone within a world can be trying to be good to each other, but that it still can sometimes not work out well. I think the other thing we were talking about a lot at the time ... I think some of that stuff is still in the DNA of the movie, but I think it went in a very different direction, as it continued to devlop.

I read the idea was floated around of doing the movie entirely in verse. Was that version ever written?

Jess: There was never a full draft. There were scenes of that that were sent over where they all spoke in verse. I think the thing that we were having a hard time with was how to make it feel organic. A lot of people wonder why it took over a decade and there were a lot of reasons why, and timing-wise too, but the other thing was that the puzzle of making someone speak in verse sound like a natural thing, it just took a long time to feel natural and organic.

Keith: I think the thing we kept running into is that we knew we wanted them to be intentionally speaking in verse at certain points. If they were also speaking in verse as the natural fabric of the movie, then it became really weird to differentiate when they were speaking in verse because they are choosing to speak in verse and when they're choosing to speak in verse because that's what the language of the movie is. It was an interesting experiment, and I think it helped us to figure out what doesn't work. Ultimately, I think it wouldn't have really worked if the movie was all in verse that way.

Jess: I do know that one of the first official emails that we sent back and forth, all of us said that we definitely didn't want to do a movie about them being aspiring rappers or musicians, which would've been a very easy way to get that verse in. We all felt like it's been done, and there was nothing new that we felt like we could add.

When you first started going to studios, Lionsgate was one of the ones that turned the project down, and you both knew you'd have to make it happen yourselves. When you get those type of responses from studios, like "Are you sure about this?", how do you both look at that reaction?

Jess: As a challenge. It's almost like they're throwing us a challenge.

Keith: I see it as a challenge. I feel like the term that gets used a lot in the studio system is that a project is "execution dependent," meaning that, oh, it needs to be done really well in order for it to have an audience. I think that's just crazy. To a certain degree, isn't every movie execution dependent? If you made a terrible movie, surely that has an impact on how well it does. But I think that there are certain types of movies where that's just the way that people think about it. I do think that it's the type of movie that we tend to get drawn to a lot, because we do like doing movies that have an inherently challenging aspect to them. But yeah, I mean, I'd much rather a studio could read the script and say it's execution dependent than they read a script and say, "Yeah, this is bad." Because they're not saying it's bad. They're saying this is really good, and the filmmaking needs to be at the same level as what the script is in order for it to work.

Blindspotting Trailer

A month before shooting, all of you got together in a room to discuss rewrites. What were some of the changes made during that time? 

Keith: It was two months. Basically, what happened is that we knew that we had the window of June with Daveed, because he had an obligation leading right up to June. Then, he had an obligation he had to shoot starting right after July 4th. We had this window that we knew we wanted to shoot. The last time we had done work on the script was right before he started doing Hamilton. We decided, "Okay, we have this window with Daveed. Let's just do it. Let's go make this movie." We had just brought on Carlos, the director, and Daveed, all of us realized there was a ton of stuff we wanted to do differently and things that we had learned over the years, all individually and together, about story and about filmmaking.

We took a four-week period in April, basically, with Rafael, Jess, me, and Carlos all holed you in our offices in L.A., and Daveed would call in, because he was on the road. It was almost like an intensive writing boot camp where we rewrote the whole story and thought about other ways for our characters...It was really like a page one rewrite. There are some scenes that have always stayed the same or virtually the same, but there were pretty significant changes that all happened in that April window. Then, basically, once we had that script at the end of April, we did a table read.

Jess: We had a table read, but we didn't have the last 30 pages.

Keith: Yeah, a table read of the first 70 pages or 60 pages. Then, at the end of that month, we sent that script out to the agents and managers. They flipped out for it and were super supportive and excited about it because they hadn't read the whole script yet. Then we jumped into casting and prep and did some rewrites during that time. But it was really after the end of April was pretty much what the movie is.

Keith, you said that some scenes remained unchanged through the rewrites. What were some of the scenes that never really changed much on the page?

Jess: That parking lot scene where they argue over the N word, that just stayed the same pretty much from the beginning.

Keith: Even before we had a full script, they wrote that scene as a proof of concept.

Jess: Proof of concept that it might tell you what this film is really about.

Keith: Then we built a lot of the movie around that scene. I think that's the main one that stayed the same. Everything else shifted when we made certain character changes and things like that, because they had to change.

Jess: But the ticking time clock of it being the last three days of probation was a new thing. That came from a brainstorm of all of us all together, of that April draft. I think that, in my opinion, it really helped bring the story all together.

Keith: Some of the big changes from that April draft were that. It was having Collin be a convicted felon who he was on probation. It was having Miles having a son instead of a daughter, because he had a daughter in a lot of the earlier drafts of the script. I think having it be a son, we all decided was a lot better for dealing with the parallels between what Collin's going through and then seeing that through the eyes of a young black child.

Jess: The addition of Val.

Keith: Yeah. There was a version of a Val character in earlier drafts, in which he was much more of a minor character. Then, the decision was to make her character as big as Jasmine's character, Ashley. I think we cut a day out of the script as well. I think it took place over four days, and there were just more moves. We tightened the timeline a bit. Those were the big changes.

How about in post-production? How did the film start evolving once you all got into the editing room?

Keith: Daveed and me and Jess and Carlos and Rafeal all were super hands on in post. I say that was the final rewrite, because really in post, a lot of stuff changed. There's a whole restructuring that happened in the middle of the movie. There was an additional move that got cut out. A bunch of stuff shifted. Then, anything that has mixed tones, it's a very delicate act of how you shift between those tones. A lot of that is built in post-production. We worked with an incredible editor, Gabe Flemming, who was really brilliant and helped shepherd us through a lot of that process.

Jess: I did want to say, because I feel a lot of times ... I don't mean to throw any shade whatsoever, but I do feel like a lot of times with independent film, that you maybe don't have enough time to get the cut to where you want it to be. I think that we were really lucky that everyone just ... I mean, I'm not exaggerating when I say that before we locked, I think we were all working easily 15-hour days up to 18, trying every single version of the edit. We had screenings at our offices every week with different friends to see if this is working better, is this feeling better. One of the things that I'm most proud of is that final cemetery run, where Collin sees all of the men on the graves, and that is actually in a combination of two cemetery runs that we finally figured out that this is the actual flow of what it should be. Each flash, we must have switched out different things that you could be flashing to to try to ultimately find the exact right build, so that when we come to that shot where he's standing there in front of all of those men, that we feel like we've earned it emotionally. I think that was definitely something that we worked on meticulously, week after week, until it felt right.

Keith: I'd also say that in post-production, music and sound are a huge part of this movie. I think that we were switching out and trying different needle drops and song options really right up to the last day of the mixing stage.

Jess: I think I read a review that was nice enough to point out that they really loved the fact we used opera in the opening. I think we tried seven different songs. We changed it so many times, to figure out what is the right opening. I mean, I was happy that people think that.

Keith: The other thing with the sound is that we used the same sound team that we use in a lot of our movies, which give us a shorthand for how you can work together and achieve a lot on a very small budget. But the other thing that was just incredible is that when we got into Sundance, we also got selected for the Dolby Fellowship that Dolby does in conjunction with Sundance. They really made sure that we had time to finish the movie and to be able to do a full post mix for the movie. Dolby were just incredibly supportive and really, I mean, almost doubled what the resources we had to finish up the sound of the movie. I think that that was a huge, huge benefit.

Blindspotting review

Robby, he's a great cinematographer and there's such a vibrancy to his work here. How was it collaborating with him again? How did you all want to portray Oakland correctly?

Keith: I know that one of the big things for our film and Daveed in particular was really getting the authenticity of Oakland right. We talked a lot about that, and we watched really a lot of music videos set in Oakland, so that Robby could get a sense of what that aesthetic is and what it feels like.

Jess: Then, there was just a lot of location scouting and a lot of going around. The other thing that's wild about this movie is that our prep period was so short for a movie that has so many locations and so much going on in it, that we would often be doing location scouts at night after we had wrapped shooting during the day.

Keith: We would finish shooting a whole long day of shooting then me, Jess, Robby, and Tom, and gaffer and maybe our key grip would all get in a truck and go luck at different street corners at night to see what would work for different scenes. It was for sure beyond a 24/7 schedule.

Jess: It's also Robby is such a genius. The scene where Collin is walking down the street and the cop turns his spotlight on him, where we had scouted that street the night before, all of the streetlights were on. Robby thought that we had a lot of light to actually work with. In fact, I don't know why this occurred, but the next day when we went there to go shoot, all of them were now off. He didn't have any light. He had to on the day to figure out a different way of shooting it. I'm biased, but I think he did an incredible job of making do with a very limited resources.

Keith: The strength that Robby has to lean on is also that he was a top, top gaffer for years. He was the gaffer on There Will Be Blood and 25th Hour, and all these really incredible movies. He has an understanding of how to do lighting in a way that really comes from the ground up, of actually literally having to move and manipulate all the lights himself.

Jess: Well, I mean, but I don't want that to take away from Kiva, who was our gaffer.

Keith: No, it doesn't.

Jess: He was a gaffer on Moonlight. He is just an incredible artist, too. The combination of him and Robby, they were just able to make the most of any type of light.

Keith: We're huge Robby fans. We've done three movies with Robby now. I'm for sure singing his praises to everyone that I can.

What's it like shooting in Oakland? How does it compare to working in other cities?

Keith: It was a great place to shoot. I think part of what makes Oakland work so well for movies is that there isn't an expectation of what movies are yet there. Locations and extras and people all around, there's a naturalism that is just there. Whereas when you're shooting in L.A., it's like everyone knows that it's a movie, and in buildings and with people, everyone acts differently. You show up to locations, and the person who owns the location in L.A. will have done it all nice to make sure it looks good on camera. In Oakland, they don't care. You show up, and it is what it is. You get a built in reality to it from that. It's also just nice because you haven't seen it a lot on camera, so everything feels just a little bit different than things you've already seen a million times.

Jess: I think also that there's just such an incredible ... I mean, it comes across in the film, too, but it's very true to life, there's an incredible pride for Oakland. It was like once they heard what the film was about and what we were trying to do, all of the people we were trying to get locations from really came onboard and were just excited because they were like anything to represent with Oakland, I'm down. It was just important for them to be able to have their Oakland onscreen.

Keith: This is a very producer thing to get into, but basically, when we really wanted to make this movie in real places in the real city and have it feel real, the question then became ... You know, so many times in movies, there's an artificiality that comes from having to use all different fake brands or not seeing really brands, and phone numbers, the 555 in the middle. Everything just feels like it's in this movie world. We worked with a lot of lawyers that are at the forefront of fair use and things like that to figure out, well, how can we actually use real company names and real brands? Our moving truck is from a real moving company with their real phone number on the side. How do we do that? What are the things we have to do this and not make it so that the distributor can't release the movie? I think part of that leads to why it feels real. It's a real world. It's not a made up movie world.

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Blindspotting is now in theaters.