Monsters and Men/Reinaldo Marcus Green

When police shoot an unarmed African American man in Bed-Stuy, three men of color respond in different ways. Director Reinaldo Marcus Green employs a triptych structure to detail the intimate and heart-stopping choices they’re forced to make in private and public spaces. Availability: Now playing in theaters nationwide. Click here for trailer. •Thanks to Emilie Spiegel, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview.


DT: The film has a very unusual triptych structure, where each “panel” depicts a different character. What was your intention?

Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Zyrick in Monsters and Men. Courtesy of NEON.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Zyrick in Monsters and Men. Courtesy of NEON.

RMG: At the core of it is perspective. In 2015 I made a short film that basically dealt with Zyrick’s character [the third panel of the triptych in Monsters and Men], an American kid who has to deal with walking home. I thought about what a film would look like if I expanded my short.

I had a very difficult conversation with a cop friend of mine, somebody I grew up with, and out of that conversation was born what you saw in the film. It was interesting to follow different threads that I didn’t get a chance to explore in my short film. But that only gave me two chapters. My friend and I disagreed with each other and left the conversation, and that’s all it was—two sides, one person walking one way and the other person walking the other way. I thought the triptych was a way to break the tie, if you will. It was a way to show a way out of the cycle. Three was a way out. That’s the way I viewed it, and it was the way I started thinking about the dialogue.  When the triptych idea came in, I started thinking about my favorite film, Amores Perros, and how I could tell a story in that format, then I married my ideas to subject matter in a way that we hadn’t particularly seen before.


DT: Where does the title come from?

RMG: I had a title before I had the film, before I even wrote the script. Monsters and Men. I was thinking of the duality of the characters, that each one of us has good and bad, each one of us has monsters and men within us; we all have individual choices to either stay quiet or do something. I thought about that, and it was catchy, and there was a double entendre. It had a dual meaning, and it stuck. The title stuck, and I stayed with it.


DT: To what extent do you think art can influence the discussion about race in America?

RMG: The history of art was born out of revolution, out of poverty, out of oppression. That’s where true art is born. That dates back centuries. When it comes to film specifically, we’re always responding to the times. The films we love are relevant, they’re timely. They tap into a zeitgeist, whether it’s a comedy and it’s The Apartment, with Jack Lemmon talking about the Great Depression. We’re always tapping into social construct and current events and how we as the people engage with them. Whether we decide to tell a satire or a comedy or a drama, films are always responding in different ways.

Now more than ever we have opportunity that we didn’t have to tell stories. We have a bigger platform, a bigger voice. Because of the Ava DuVernays, because of the Barry Jenkins, because of the Spike Lees we have agency in a way we didn’t have before, and it’s wonderful that they’ve created opportunities for younger filmmakers to either follow suit or create their own. Spike Lee has been doing it for over thirty years. He’s been able to take art and cinema and say really bold, bold things, and people are going to pay good money to see it. Think about Do the Right Thing—it stands up today as well as it did when it was first made, if not more.

We’re constantly responding to the times, whether it’s musicians or painters or filmmakers. It’s our responsibility. Again, I don’t think genre matters. It’s really wonderful to see the difference in films, this year alone, that have different tones. Get Out last year. How you talk about race or politics or gender is important for art and artists and cinema to tackle. This is not a new wave, it’s just we have an opportunity and a platform we didn’t have before and we’re able to tell more stories than we ever have before.


DT: A number of your actors are musicians as well as actors. How much improv was there during the shoot?

Anthony Ramos as Manny in Monsters and Men.

Anthony Ramos as Manny in Monsters and Men.

RMG: We played around with dialogue a fair amount. We allowed the actors to breathe into what they felt was natural. As a writer, I would say there are limitations to what you put on the page. Sometimes the process is informed by location, the environment, the other actors. It can be informed by what they’re wearing, the set design. I tell my actors that if a word doesn’t fit, don’t force it—find the word that fits. It’s all about the meaning of the scene. So long as they get it, if they can put it in their words, it’s always going to be stronger than what I put down on paper.


DT: You’ve said that it’s necessary to listen to the other side. I’m thinking of the scene where Dennis, a black cop, sees two white cops harrassing Zyrick, a black teenager, but doesn’t stop them. Is it necessary to listen to the other side if the other side is wrong?

John David Washington as Dennis in Monsters and Men. Courtesy of NEON.

John David Washington as Dennis in Monsters and Men. Courtesy of NEON.

RMG: Maybe the word necessary is wrong. When we don’t engage the other side, or we don’t acknowledge that it exists, we’re oftentimes blindsided when things happen. If we allow ourselves to listen and engage, we don’t have to agree, but we know that these are real things that are happening around us and we’re not blind to the fact that they’re happening. It’s important to stay engaged around difference of opinion. If you go into a boardroom and there are ten people who look like you and think like you, you’re going to get very similar results. But when you have different genders, different races, different ethnicities, you’re going to get a difference of thought and oftentimes a better product, whether you’re selling Apple or Nike or a movie.

Sometimes it’s better to have more difficult conversations than easy ones. That’s not just my opinion—it’s the way I view the world. I grew up with a father who’s an attorney. No matter how right I felt about something, he would always give me a rebuttal. He would always show me that there are two sides to every argument. That’s the household I grew up in, and a lot of that informs my filmmaking: I may think I’m right, but am I right? And of course in order to prove that I was right, I had to put together an argument. That’s how we had to survive in our household, but oftentimes there was a rich discussion that ensured we would at least be able to navigate knowing that other people thought a certain way, and it was important for us to engage that way. That’s the way I engage the world, and I hope I can share a little bit of that.


DT: Do you think that racial violence in America can be addressed without acknowledging our history of slavery?

RMG: No. I don’t think so. Not in this country, anyway. It’s synonymous with African American in this country, and you need to acknowledge that there’s a deep-rooted history here. We have to go back to the beginning and before that; we have to go back to before slavery in this country to really acknowledge how deep the scars run. It’s been going on for a very long time. We’re just trying to find new and inventive ways to keep the light burning, if you will, pass the torch, keep the fire burning to ensure that future generations don’t fall victim to violence.


DT: My heart was bursting at the end of the film, and I believe it’s going to move a lot of other people as well. Do you want to continue making films on this subject, the way Ken Loach makes social justice films, or do you want to be more like John Boorman, making films like Deliverance and Zardoz and Hope and Glory, all so different from each other?

RMG: I have a kid’s animation film in my lights. I want to make Coco, or Lion King. Human stories that have deep cultural resonance any way you slice it. To me it’s not about the genre, it’s about the story, it’s about the humanity.

Because of who I am as an individual, there’s always going to be a social component. I’m half Puerto Rican and half African American. It’s unique in my storytelling, it’s unique in how I view the world, and that will always be at the core of any story I’m telling, in front of the camera and behind it.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018

Manos Sucias/Josef Wladyka

Along the Pacific Coast of Colombia, Afro-Colombian fishermen are forced into the drug trade by paramilitary groups and guerillas threatening to kill their families and steal their land.  Out of countless stories collected firsthand from the people living this nightmare, director Josef Wladyka has fashioned a heart-stopping tale of two brothers forced to deliver a shipment of cocaine stuffed into a homemade torpedo. A highlight of the Tribeca Film Festival 2015 Availability:  Check local theater listings here. Thanks to Tribeca Film Festival for arranging this interview.


DT:  Let’s talk about your research into representing the Colombian drug trade authentically.


JW:  The research started in 2007 when I was just backpacking with my friend through Ecuador and Colombia.  We were going along the coast, talking to locals in all these towns that are under siege.  You’d hear stories about people getting inside homemade submarines and doing all sorts of crazy things trafficking drugs. It sparked my initial interest:  What’s going on here?

I speak enough Spanish to get by, but I’m not fluent, so I was always with someone who spoke perfect Spanish. When I went with the very specific intent of researching these areas and trying to find people who were involved in actually going on a mission, a friend of mine from Tumaco [Colombia] went with me   I also went to Malaga Naval Base, which is near Buenaventura.  I got permission from the government to see captured narco submarines and narco torpedoes. It was probably five years of researching and just going back to Colombia and Buenaventura, and starting to meet with some of the theater students and actors in the film.  It was an evolving process. The script was always changing as I learned more.



DT:  At what point did you know you wanted to make a film?


JW:  In 2009.  I was going through the graduate film program [NYU], and I was starting to think about what I was going to do for my thesis film.  This Colombia material was always in the back of my mind.  A lot of stories were starting to come out in the newspapers about the narco submarines and all this stuff going on, and that’s when I really wanted to research this and see what type of film there was here:  What was really going on in these places?  This script evolved from there.


DT:  The film included a lot of references to guerillas and the paramilitary, and even witches.  Who are they and how are they involved in the drug trade?


JW:  That’s an extremely long conversation. Buenaventura is a place that’s very much historically been forgotten by the government.  It’s over the Andes Mountains on the Pacific Coast.  It’s the biggest port in Colombia, so lots of imports and exports come and go.  It’s the richest port, but the people who live in the area have been completely left out of that economy, and since it’s in a specific region of Colombia with hidden mangroves and jungles and all this dead stuff, it’s the epicenter for a lot of narco trafficking.

Paramilitary groups and guerilla groups control different regions. In Buenaventura, the barrios have these things called invisible borders, where the barrios are controlled by different groups. For example, in real life, my lead actors couldn’t go to each other’s neighborhoods. A lot of the time people are extorted into doing this stuff; the drug traffickers come and take over their land and force them to plant cocaine, or they’ll come and start killing people to take control of the place. The right-wing paramilitaries are one group, but there are also these bands of gangs.  It’s an extremely complicated thing. In this area of Colombia there’s also a lot of superstition about witchcraft. Those little motorcycles on the tracks at the end of the film are called brujitas (little witches).  It’s a place that’s very much under siege. Last month [April 2014], Buenaventura had become the most violent it’s been in several years, so there was a lot of protesting going on, people asking the government to come and help stop the violence. It was all over the news in Colombia, and our film was premiering in Colombia while all of this was going on.


DT:  How was it received?


JW:  Colombians loved it. It’s interesting—now that I’ve sat with the New York audience, I see it’s completely different. Colombians are a lot more emotive.  It was beautiful.  I was extremely nervous; the actors hadn’t seen the film.  The production coordinator, who was from Buenaventura, was very, very emotional.  A lot of laughing, a lot of crying.  It was intense.


DT:  Imagine…all that from your thesis film. Can you tell me about the folk music you used?  It was very powerful, and a great use of music.


JW:  There are three types of music in the film.  There’s the score that was done by Scott Thorough, which is the music in the cinematic moments of the film.  There’s hip-hop and rap from Buenaventura, so we have some songs from two very popular rappers in Buenaventura. The third type of music, which you’re speaking of, is called currulao. It’s African-Colombian folkloric music very specific to this region of Colombia.  It’s very beautiful. My friend from Tumaco sent me two hundred songs from the area, and I listened to all of them. Halfway through the editing process, we started editing the a cappella parts over the images and it became very beautiful and powerful. There’s not a lot of women in the film, so it was almost like the voices of the women longing for the men as they go on these crazy journeys.  They’re singing about the ocean, and the beach, and God, and I hoped we could use the music, since it’s really hard to track down the artists who make the actual music. We found them, though. There’s two groups:  Grupo Gualajo and Grupo Socavon. They did all of the folkloric music.  We feel very lucky to have permission to use that music.


DT:  In the rap song the younger brother was singing, there’s this notion of fighting to maintain harmony.  What does that mean?


JW:  Buenaventura is a complicated place.  There are people who are just trying to maintain and go to school and have a normal life while all this madness is going on, and there are rappers who are trying to be artists while all this stuff is going on.  He’s basically saying, There are a lot of problems here, but we’re trying to be at peace in my neighborhood. He’s talking about a specific neighborhood in Buenaventura.


DT:  Can you talk about the filmmaking workshops you did with the local community to maintain a positive impact on the region?


JW:  That happened when the production crew saw Buenaventura for the first time. Elena Greenlee [producer] and my cowriter/cinematographer Alan Blanco had never been to Buenaventura before. It’s a very intense place, and we went on very extensive location scouts to talk to the community leaders in these neighborhoods. We were always extremely upfront and honest with them. We said, This is exactly what the film’s about, this is why we want to do it;  we’re gringos, and if you don’t feel comfortable with us doing this film here, that’s fine. But they wanted us to make the film and tell the story so much because it’s reality. It’s a matter-of-fact way of life.  But they also said, What are you going to give us?

We were a very small-budget film. We didn’t have big money, and that’s when Elena and all of us came up with the idea of doing filmmaking workshops.  She had worked on the film City of God and they had done a similar type of thing, so she was really brilliant in championing the whole curriculum of how we were going to do it. We did it all during preproduction, which was a crazy intense time, but we made sure to do it. It was a beautiful collaboration, and a lot of our crew came from these workshops. A lot of the cast came from them as well.  And that’s how we earned people’s trust for them to say, OK, we’ll let them come and shoot in these neighborhoods; they want to use us. Buenaventura’s a place where a lot of things are promised but little is followed through, so people there have this natural defense: You guys are just talking.  At first, because I’m American and they saw that Americans were coming to these displaced communities, they thought, Maybe this is something real. And I kept coming back, and they thought, Why does this Japanese Polish guy keep showing up here?…maybe he’s for real.  Then once the production people started to show up, the locals thought, OK, this is really happening, and we’re going to get on board with this.


DT:  From what I’ve read, it sounds like the offscreen relationship between the actors who played the two brothers was very much like their onscreen relationship.  They were really terrific.


JW:  They’re in my heart.  I love them so much.  They’re both from Buenaventura, they both have had extremely difficult lives, but they’re both very serious actors.  They went to the same theater school in Buenaventura, and they take their acting very, very seriously.

When they were first cast, they didn’t know each other very well and were feeling each other out.  I wanted them to be in the same hotel room from the beginning of it all so they’d really be like brothers, could really form that relationship.  I remember the moment Jarlin told Cristian, We’re going to be the first guys from Buenaventura headlining a film—this may never happen again, so we’ve really got to come together and work hard. They were in their beds every night studying the script together.  They took it very, very seriously.


DT:  In the press notes, Jarlin said, It’s a social responsibility to show the pain.


JW:  Yeah. He wanted to put his own personal stories and things that have happened to him out there. Alan and I wrote the script based off my research. Then one of my good friends, Orlando Cordozo, who lives here in New York but is from Barranquilla, translated the script into Colombian Spanish. I brought him down with me to be my translator, to be attached to me, because he knew the script so well, and he’s my friend and I needed someone as a reflection of me.  I speak Spanish, but to articulate intellectually, especially with the actors during the rehearsal process, I needed someone there with me. He was a godsend.

Once we’d cast the two main actors, we went through the whole script scene by scene and changed all the dialogue to local Buenaventura dialogue. At the same time I was always open. Because I wanted to be as authentic as possible, I was open to their ideas about changing stuff around. For example, we had written a scene where one of the brothers is crying and talking about his son who was killed, but the actor brought a real story that happened to him, and that’s what he’s saying in the film—that he was one of those little kids at the soccer field where all his friends got killed. We did a lot of stuff like that to include as much as we could. There’s a lot of racism in the film. In Latin America in general there’s still a lot of racism toward Afro Latinos, so I asked, Does this seem real to you; is this too much? And they said, Do more, do more. We didn’t want to beat that over the head too much, though, so it was a process.


DT:  One of the things your film made clear is the fact that film is such an international language.


JW:  Film is a powerful thing. When you backpack as a traveler, you only learn about a place to a certain extent, on the surface.  But if you make a film somewhere…  Buenaventura is a part of me forever.  Probably seventy-five percent of my friends on Facebook are from Buenaventura.  They’re making and posting videos, so I get to watch all this stuff they’re doing.

Our film deals with an international issue, so I think it transcends Colombia. Obviously Colombians know about Buenaventura, but we’re really hoping that the rest of the world can go past that.  That’s why the film has action-y elements to it. It’s accessible. Alan and I always felt that it still had to be an entertaining piece of fiction so that people would go see it. Then, if we leave the audience with something to think about at the end, we did a good job. It’s not a documentary.  We could have made a documentary, but it’s a narrative film, so it should be dramatic, it should tug and pull on the audience and be a good ride.  Our whole style, and the way we shot it, and the way we wrote it was to just ground the audience immediately in going on one of these trips.  Not a lot of stuff is going to be explained.  It’s just all happening, and you’re going with them.


DT:  What’s the biggest difference between what you learned in film school and what you learned on set?


JW:  The biggest thing you’re not going to learn in film school is what you have to do to get people to jump on board and actually get a film made—navigating all the different personalities you need to help you make your film.  In film school you make a little short film and that’s it.  But if it’s a real feature film, there’s a lot of people involved. Just the sheer size of a feature is overwhelming. I don’t know if that can ever be taught.



Copyright © Director Talk 2015