David Oyelowo On 'Don't Let Go' And Preparing For His Directorial Debut [Interview]

The latest film starring actor David Oyelowo, Don't Let Go, is a difficult one to categorize. And the odds are good that if you don't try to, you might really end up finding it one of the more intriguing concepts of any film out there right now. In it, Oyelowo plays a police detective, whose brother (Brian Tyree Henry) and his family are murdered mysteriously, and shortly after this horrible crime, he receives a phone call from niece Ashley (Storm Reid, from A Wrinkle In Time), who was among those killed. Through circumstances that are thankfully never explained, Ashley is somehow calling from two weeks in the past and is therefore hopefully able to manipulate things with the help of her uncle to avoid being murdered.Writer/director Jacob Estes leaves open the possibility that Oyelowo's character has gone crazy from grief or maybe Ashley is nothing more than a ghost, but it genuinely seems like he has willed this situation out of extraordinary grief. The film began life at the Sundance Film Festival under the title Relive, and has since been reworked considerably, according to Oyelowo, to de-emphasize questions about the time travel elements of the story and focus more on family and the emotional weight of the proceedings.British-born Oyelowo has been particularly busy since his breakthrough performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and a supporting role in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, both in 2014. He even found time to work his way into the Star Wars universe, playing the duplicitous Kallus in Star Wars Rebels, and earlier this year, he took on the iconic role as Inspector Javert in the PBS dramatic (non-musical) take on Les Misérables. And because he isn't busy enough, he's also directing his first feature, The Water Man, which we discuss./Film spoke to Oyelowo recently about the changes made to the film since Sundance, what he and Reid did to sell the uncle-niece bond to audiences, and the benefits of working with the supporting production team from Blumhouse on the film. Don't Let Go opens nationwide on August 30.I could not watch this movie and not think about a giant dry-erase board with multiple time lines and storylines and characters zig-zagging across it. I can't imagine how else you keep track of what's going on here. And I'm not saying it's confusing; it's not at all, and I give all credit to Jacob Estes. But shooting it must have hurt your brain.David: [laughs] It's funny you say that because that was definitely a big part of the development process of this film—trying to iron out all of the timelines, all of the mind-bending elements. That's partly why the film went from being called Relive at Sundance to Don't Let Go now, because it's actually a different film. We had to keep on refining because we wanted to to be crystal clear while retaining its complexity. We didn't want to patronize the audience but we couldn't afford to lose them either. So we went in and did even more work after Sundance. The title Relive was so right for a film that was very much tied up in the time travel in a more intellectually driven film. What we glommed onto after Sundance was something that was more emotional, sometime more tied to the relationship between Jack and Ashley, so the title felt natural to be called Don't Let Go. But yes, a time travel movie of this nature shot out of sequence is even more mind-numbing, but we got there in the end.I know it wouldn't be possible to shoot this chronologically, but as an actor, I have to imagine you're being required to take on so many different emotions in a single day—from grieving to hopeful—because of the nature of the film, maybe more so than on a less twisty movie. Was it a little exhausting to go through that everyday?David: It wasn't a little exhausting; it was incredibly exhausting [laughs]. And it was exactly what you said I would have to do, more so than any other role I've played. I'd have to map out the emotional trajectory of the character because he was in multiple timelines, under different circumstances, different iterations of the character, but they'd all have to really land. You're absolutely right to give Jacob the credit, because thankfully he wrote it, but he also had to really keep an eye on and guide us—myself and Storm Reid—to make sure that every beat would fit in this very intricately woven script and the film.I love that there's no explanation as to why this time shift is happening or even possible. Maybe in an earlier version there was an attempt to explain. It feels like your character has willed it to happen, because he's so distraught and desperate. Was there ever a discussion about the Why?David: We discussed very early on that we were not going to get bogged down with explaining the time travel element. Thankfully, we're in a post-modern cinematic age, and time travel has become a genre unto itself. So people bring their own baggage to a time travel movie, which gives us the license to say "Okay, time has split. Everyone good with that? Let's go." And then we can focus on this unconventional love story between the uncle and his nieces, and that's where we really wanted the focus to go. We really wanted to drag the audience through this narrative web where the primary emotional feeling is "Get them back together. Save her." We're only going to give you one scene of them together in a diner, and we're hoping that's just enough for you to also be willing them back into each other's company through this crazy narrative that we've built. It's a choice that really pays off, because it's more of an emotionally driven film than an intellectually plot-driven one.You have this very narrow window at the beginning to sell the bond between these two, because everything else between them is phone calls. Can you talk about the work that you did to sell their relationship?David: Partly because that was the case, we didn't think we could afford to also do that on the set. We couldn't make it a technical exercise. So every time Storm was on camera [on the phone], I was on set with her. We would be getting direction from Jacob together, so that those phones calls felt very real because I was literally in the next room on the phone doing those scenes with her. We'd be together between scenes, always in the other's proximity. And also it helped continue to build our relationship as two actors, because that's the byproduct of being in scenes with an actor—you're getting to know them as a person and a character. But we weren't going to have that luxury if we were apart all the time. Even though Storm and I did spend time together before shooting, we knew it was imperative that we continue to inhabit each other's space so that that relationship between us felt real.The scene that did it for me and that showed how close they are even when they aren't physically together is that bubble gum scene in the diner. You're acting opposite each other but you're not. Did you view that as a key moment in the whole story? Up to that point, your character is trying very hard not to let her know what's going on, and that's where he has to reveal it.David: In terms of what you were alluding to earlier about shooting things out of order, and crazily that was Day 1 of the shoot—in the diner. You can imagine for those who see the film, that isn't an ideal place to start, and we really had to map out where these characters were. But that was a case where I was on set that day, poor Storm was there all day, and it basically like they're having a scene together—we literally sat opposite each other. There's a wonderful moment at the end of that film, a payoff, that alludes to the proximity of them across timelines. That scene was one of the ones I read in the script and went "Wow!" It's a 12- to 13-page scene, and it just goes to the heart of this relationship. The beautiful thing about Jack is that he is having to get his head around this crazy situation; it's not like he's just taken it as a given: "Oh sure, time has split. Let's get on with it." He's wondering if grief is making him go crazy or PTSD. What is going on? And then he realizes that he can't afford to let his young niece know. She's not going to believe him and that will ultimately jeopardize his chances of saving her. As the film goes on, he has to concede to that, and the way that gets done really hints at the closeness of their relationship. I don't know too many people in my life who would give me that benefit of the doubt and believe that.This is Jacob's third film. What was it about the screenplay and his vision for the film that made you realize you could trust him with something this complex?David: I think it's the fact that he was drawn to the same things I saw in the film too, which is the emotional side of it. As the father of four children myself, I really relate to this idea of being prepared to do anything and everything I could to save the ones I love, and that was very much what Jacob was preoccupied with. We love the genre elements, but he has two kids himself, and we've always wanted it to be more about the family than it is the other stuff, even though the other stuff is cool wrapping for this unconventional love story.This is a Blumhouse production and they have reputation for two things: very low budgets and creative freedom. Did you find both of those to be true? It seems like after your Sundance premiere, Jacob was allow to go back in and keep working, so it would seem so.David: Well there's no studio I know of that would let us do that after a film festival. The tradeoff is that you make the film for very little money, but you have creative freedom and the director gets final cut. The other amazing thing about them is that they really support that process and have really glommed onto the fact that if you hire the right people and they are passionate about the story, there's a real chance that they'll not only tell the story well but they will tell it in a way that isn't cookie cutter, that isn't like the last 10 films that the studio released. Ultimately, that is why Blumhouse has so much success. They continually put out films that feel fresh, even though they have genre elements, they also have a cinematic feel to them. Directors are being allowed to say things that are both specific and thought provoking with their movies. Not every film is like that—some are pure horror—but in the world where you have Get Out being done by Blumhouse and other films of that nature—Whiplash is another one—these are great opportunities that Jason Blum and his crew are affording filmmakers to have full expression. And not just directors, but actors and writers as well.There aren't a lot of moments of levity in the film, but the sequence where you are trying to convince Ashley not to go to your house meet with the past version of yourself made me laugh. Tell me about that moment.David: Yeah, she meets a different iteration of her uncle, and we get a glimpse of what Jack is like when he's not stressed about the loss of his entire family. It's a cool thing to see and a nice thing to play. People who see the film will see that my character is very stressed and bloody for a lot of the film, so that was a nice bit of respite for me.Speaking of that, it's an interesting choice to open the film with you finding these bodies, and then much later in the film, we have to watch the actual murders. It's almost like you have to experience it twice. That must have been a real treat.David: I know. We wanted to the film to be a ride, and that's why we stayed away from explaining the time travel and don't spend a bunch of time building up this relationship between the uncle and niece. We wanted you to be right in the think of the movie and for it to grab you and not let god, and that was the way to do it. But yes, that didn't make it comfortable from an acting point of view.You have a film that you are directing coming up, your first feature. What can you tell me about it?David: It's called The Water Man and it's about an 11-year-old boy whose mother is very ill, and the family has just moved to this small town, and there's this myth of the Water Man, and the myth is that the Water Man has the power to heal. So he teams up with this 14-year-old girl to find the Water Man in order to save his mother.And you're in that too, right?David: I am. I play the boy's father. Lonnie Chavis plays my son. Amiah Miller plays is the girl he goes hunting for the Water Man with. Rosario Dawson plays my wife. Alfred Molina, who is a staple in my life now [he's also in Don't Let Go], is in it, as is Maria Bello.David, thank you so much. Best of luck with this.David: Thank you.