LUCE – A CONVERSATION WITH DIRECTOR AND CO-WRITER JULIUS ONAH

LUCE

LUCE - Screening with Reel Movie Mondays on December 2, 2019 at 7pm.

A FILM BY JULIUS ONAH

STARRING: NAOMI WATTS, OCTAVIA SPENCER, KELVIN HARRISON JR., and TIM ROTH

DIRECTED BY: JULIUS ONAH

BASED ON THE PLAY “LUCE” BY JC LEE

WRITTEN BY: JC LEE, JULIUS ONAH

A CONVERSATION WITH DIRECTOR AND CO-WRITER JULIUS ONAH

(Courtesy of NEON)

How did you come into contact with the play on which the film version of LUCE is based?

Brian Grazer at Imagine Entertainment was developing a project called The Standards, about this kid from Long Island who cheated on the SATs. JC Lee was attached to write it and when Grazer reached out to me about working on the project, the writing sample he sent me was Lee’s stage play of Luce, which had been produced at Lincoln Center in 2013.

One of the things that impressed me about the play was the dialogue it created around blackness and black identity and how it played out between a woman who is African American — who was born and raised in this country — and a kid who was an immigrant from Africa. It was something I related to on a deep level because I was born in Nigeria and spent the first 10 years of my life traveling around the world. I moved to Arlington, Virginia when I was 10 and we wound up setting the story there. I came over with a father who was a diplomat, but when his term ended, he left and I began a long immigration process living with my mom and siblings. It was a radical shift from
being an Ambassador’s son to being with a mom who worked at McDonalds while we lived in subsidized housing. The process stretched so long that by the time I finished college I had no papers. So, I spent almost a year undocumented and got a job busing tables. I say all that, because the notion of being an outsider is something I’ve lived in many ways and really drew me to Luce. Not to mention that for the first decade of my life I was an African and then I was an African American. I had this whole history thrust on me that wasn't something entirely organic to who I was other than the color of my skin.

Describe your collaboration with co-writer JC Lee on this project.

Despite how different we are on some levels, we have a similar sensibility when it comes to storytelling, and the way we want to explore ideas and issues. Neither of us want to tell stories that are prescriptive or didactic in how they explore complex social issues.
We both want to ask people to consider their blind spots, and to recognize their experience of the world will never be identical with anyone else's.

How did you go about adapting LUCE from the stage play?

I didn’t plan on writing on the film at first, but JC’s schedule in TV was really busy. And with other projects on my end, years quickly went by. But as a director you also have downtime and I was eager to make this film happen. So, when I found myself with a three-week hiatus on another project, I sat down and wrote an entire first draft. The funny thing is I had told JC ahead of time, but he was so busy he misunderstood me and thought I was going to write an outline. So, we had a funny moment over breakfast where I came in with a script. Fortunately, JC was happy with what I’d written and set about writing a second draft.

From there, we traded re-writes back and forth. It was a three-month process turning JC's play into a shooting script.

The play was produced in the Obama era. Did you envision the film version as a different beast in the Trump era?

Not at all, but I'd be lying if I wasn't galvanized by what happened in the 2016 election. JC produced the play in 2013 but he began conceiving it even earlier than that; and we started discussing the movie well before the presidential election. We didn't want to make the reactionary version of LUCE in the Trump era — we wanted to stay true to what was interesting to us about the story. But of course, between the play and the movie things changed. Black Lives Matter emerged. Right before we started shooting, the Me Too movement broke out. These events were happening parallel to our development process and touched on elements of our script, but we wanted to stay true to the original story and characters.

What makes the movie different from the play?

The original play consisted of five characters and two settings – so we needed to show more of Luce’s world in Arlington to ground it and bring it to life.

That said the play already had the architecture of a thriller so for the movie, we tried to adapt it in a way that felt organic to JC's original storytelling but shifted some of the ideas into a more cinematic space. It was never a case of superimposing beats onto the existing story in order to gin up the action. Everything in the movie comes organically from the decisions and beliefs of the characters.

You added the character of Principal Dan, one of the most fascinating characters in the movie. Describe his role.

It's easy to feel like Dan is on the periphery of the story, but he represents the entire community outside of Luce's family and Harriet Wilson. He has a legitimate desire to see Luce succeed, never mind what Luce symbolizes to the community — he's the dream package: the black immigrant who also represents what a star student who goes through this system can become. Principal Dan stands for that self-congratulatory strain some of these communities can have. We were so lucky to get Norbert Leo Butz for the role, he's a fantastic actor and that character is so important to the movie.

Did you feel that self-congratulatory strain growing up in Arlington as an immigrant and star pupil yourself?

Certainly, and it's not all diabolical but at the same time it's complicated and some of the elements involved can have a negative effect. We had to make Principal Dan just right on the page — he couldn't come across as a monster, a dolt or a saint. Norbert found a way to walk a fine line between being a little bit aloof, while you know there's a lot more going on underneath — in the person as well as the system he represents.

LUCE

We've seen Luce's parents, Amy and Peter, before in movies — liberal, well intentioned people whose values become tested. Discuss how you made them original and unique.

I knew a lot of people like Amy and Peter in Arlington. People who are educated, smart, privileged and profess certain “liberal” values. What I found interesting about the story was what happens when people who look good on paper discover tension between the values they profess and having to actually live those values.

For the film to work Amy and Peter had to be relatable — they are people who believe in the kinds of things we generally want to say we believe in, but when placed in a difficult situation we find they might not have the vocabulary or experience to deal with tension in sophisticated ways. They have a degree of obliviousness as well — their good intentions become a path to a destructive place without it necessarily being rooted in some malevolent impulse.

image still of LUCE filmTim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr and Naimo Watts appear Luce by Julius Onah, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Larkin Seiple

Describe Amy's journey in this movie — as Luce's mother, she undergoes the most dramatic shift in perception of all the characters.

It's essentially the story of her awakening. Peter, Principal Dan, Harriet Wilson all have specific points of view — but Amy has a more conflicted perspective. Things happen over the course of the story and she has to decide where she ultimately stands, and what she's willing to accept and not accept as a mother and a member of this community.

I loved her character in the play because at the end of her journey she isn't the kind of person you necessarily want her to be. She winds up being a reflection of what we’re all capable of when we're under pressure and placed in similar situations.

LUCE

The tension between Mrs. Wilson and Luce is fascinating because they're both black people — what might have been the ultimate lifeline for Luce becomes something else...

I wanted to focus on the generational schism between Luce and Harriet in this movie. She's a product of the Sixties, and civil rights, the liberal movement that was about erasing the differences between people and focusing on a language of uplift — you can see the direct line of this from Martin Luther King to Barack Obama. Hers is a colorblind, non-confrontational ethos of how we address issues of race, power and privilege in this country.

Luce is a product of something completely different — he's saying to Harriet that if the point of that movement, and of revolution in general, was to give us the freedom to be who we want to be, then he should have the freedom to define himself entirely on his own terms. This means not having to sentimentalize himself or subscribe to a kind of respectability politics in order to be accepted or tolerated. This notion of respectability politics is still so pervasive in an older generation of African Americans. Somebody like Luce, who has incredible intellectual horsepower and who is so well read and sophisticated for a 17-year-old, understands that to subscribe to this philosophy would be to imprison one's self in an even more limiting way. This is the argument Luce is having with Harriet — if we continue to play the game of having to be perfect, and fit this narrow definition of acceptability, then we're not actually making progress in being fully human. But Harriet wants him to understand that the reality of life is harsh, and as much as he may want to believe he can be anyone he wants to be, he has to be prepared for a world that may not accept that.

The ideological rift of who we get to be, and who truly has power and privilege to define that, is the core of the tension between them.

Questions of power and privilege are clearly central to the film, what was your approach to raising those questions?

One of my key concerns with LUCE, and intertwined with exploring identity, is exploring power - who has it, who doesn’t, and how our institutions uphold the rigid systems of power that disadvantage certain demographics. So much of the dialogue in our culture right now is about confronting systems of power that disenfranchise women, the LGBTQIA community, people of color, people with disabilities and a myriad of other marginalized groups. LUCE explores how life can be experienced by those on the receiving end of exploitative and unfair power dynamics.

Because of who she is – a woman, a person of color - Harriet faces certain vulnerabilities and so does her sister Rosemary, who has the added complications of being poor and mentally ill. DeShaun faces vulnerabilities because of his race and class that others who engage in similar disruptive behavior don’t, while Luce’s proximity to whiteness affords him certain privileges that other black characters don't enjoy. The negative things that happen to Harriet, Rosemary, and DeShaun are not about punishing these characters, they are an illustration of how insidious and destructive the systems of power that exist today are. These characters reveal how interrelated and overlapping factors can grant someone power in one situation while depriving them of it in another – Harriet has power over Luce and DeShaun because of her position within the school system, but Luce has power relative to Harriet because of the privilege his white family affords him.

The other approach in raising questions was rooted in the use of language in the play and film. The story’s emphasis on language is as a means to explore how it can be utilized as an instrument of power and privilege. In well meaning, liberal environments there are not the same overt symbols of prejudice and supremacy. But language becomes a way to establish codes of acceptability and also to inflict psychological and emotional power on others by way of what is said and what isn’t. The ability to decide when and how issues of identity are raised and resolved and to code it in language that can be weaponized is a privilege reserved for those in positions of dominance. Letting our characters engage in the seemingly simple act of talking was essential to dramatize how language plays a critical role in the wielding of power.

Luce is a deeply complex and conflicted character who contains multitudes. Who is he in a nutshell — does he even know who he is?

Luce is like a kid with a Lamborghini who doesn't have a license to drive yet. He's incredibly smart and contains multitudes, but he's still trying to figure things out. While he outwardly projects this idealized perfect image, there's a roiling tension beneath the surface— he's trying to figure out who he is, but he's also wondering if he's selling himself out. He sees the world around him, in his school, and his community, and senses that something isn't right. But what can he do about it?

This is a young man in search of himself who wants to attack the idealized versions of ourselves that we all sell, which he feels guilty of selling as well. But at the same time, he understands that he's the beneficiary of privilege gained by selling some of those same platitudes. Yet despite the privileges afforded by his proximity to whiteness through his parents, he’s still black. He still faces many of the challenges blackness brings – most obviously, he is profiled for writing a paper about violence in a way a white peer would most likely not be.

When Kelvin Harrison first came on board, I explained to him that Luce is a budding revolutionary. In the play, where a certain kind of abstraction works well Luce wrote about an unnamed Eastern European revolutionary. But for the movie it required a specificity that was psychological, emotional and historical, so Franz Fanon felt appropriate. Fanon's work in revolutionary movements in North Africa in the 50s shaped his thinking on what was necessary for the true liberation of colonized peoples. It was from this work he developed the idea that "violence is a cleaning force" that would produce "new men." And this liberation was both from imperialists oppressors and internalized imperialist thinking.

This is also part of Luce’s conflict with Harriet – he is seeking to liberate himself and decolonize his mind in ways he thinks she hasn’t. So, it was important that the substance of his paper spoke to ideological values that directly related to how Luce explores his identity in America.

Was your own upbringing similar to Luce's?

I grew up in a very strict Catholic immigrant Nigerian family where it was all about academics. When I dyed my hair as a kid, it was simply not accepted at home. Like Luce, I wanted to push at boundaries and challenge the preconceived notions of my Nigerian identity with my parents and also the preconceived notions of a community like Arlington. I pushed in different ways and at different times though.

Luce is a bit like Uncle Charlie in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt — we're not sure if he's good or evil or something in between. Discuss eliciting suspense out of Luce's ambiguous identity...

Everything you see with Luce and his family was an effort to tell the story from the outside in. You're on the outside initially, but as you peel away the layers of the story, you come closer and closer to seeing Luce's true nature — but never definitively. Some people will be faster than others in piecing together his reality, but that shadow of a doubt remains throughout.

I think that's important because in life we're always going to be limited by our perceptions, and that sense of perception is so critical to understanding Luce and his surroundings. If you were to see Luce walking down the street, or watch him give a speech in an auditorium, all you would know about him is what you see. We always bring our own personal history and assumptions and impose them on others. We pigeonhole people, and oppress them based on appearances, class, gender, and other factors - though we are seldom cognizant of the limits of our ability to understand what's in front of us. Part of the thriller component of this story is seeing those shifting perceptions in play, especially through the character of Amy. She's trying to figure out who her son is at the same time we're trying to figure out who he is, through the web of relationships he has with the people in his school.

Stephanie Kim is one of the most ambiguous characters - in a film full of ambiguous characters - can you talk a little bit about her and her arc?

As we see from her relationship to Luce, Harriet believes there is a symbolic burden of representation those in marginalized groups have to carry. Just like she spotlights Luce’s symbolic value of black success and DeShawn's of black delinquency, she also spotlights Stephanie Kim for the symbolic value she represents as a victim of abuse. But much like Luce, Stephanie rejects this reductive assessment of her personhood.

Stephanie doesn’t want her traumatic experience of sexual abuse to be used to label her only as a victim in order to prove a point. The complicated and sometimes hard to comprehend ways she reacts to her attack exist in the same shades of gray as Luce and every other character in the story. Stephanie’s assault is real, but the ambiguity of her response reflects her complicated inner life and her efforts to define her own identity. In portraying those ambiguities, it was important to be honest about how the limits of our perception come into play with Stephanie, Luce and all our characters.

How did you come to cast Kelvin Harrison, Jr. as Luce?

I was always confident that we'd be able to get great actors for the parents and teachers, and I was glad to cast Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Octavia Spencer in major roles. But I had no idea where we would find somebody to play Luce. I had seen nothing of Kelvin's work — not even It Comes At Night. We did an open call and saw a ton of actors; people submitted tapes from as far away as Australia and England. I honestly expected we would find someone in England — where the John Boyegas of the world are coming from, all these theater-trained actors of African descent who grow up abroad. But I never imagined we would find someone in our own backyard.

Kelvin submitted a tape and it blew us away. When I first had a meeting with him — he was so mild mannered, I initially thought he didn't understand the character or script — he kept asking me why Luce would do the things he seems to be doing in the story. Then the tape came in, and clearly, he understood the character.

How did you help Kelvin think about and develop Luce’s character?

There were two models I gave Kelvin for the character during preparation: Barack Obama and Will Smith. To me, they're the apotheosis of a cool, but non-threatening black masculinity. They have immense power and popularity, not to mention charisma and charm. I don't think there would be a Barack Obama without Will Smith. Not long-ago characters like John Prentice (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and Phil Huxtable gave America a vision of this non-threatening and respectable sense of black masculinity, but it was quite old-fashioned and sort of defiantly un-cool.

What Will did, and what Obama was able to do in his shadow, was much different. They allowed black masculinity to stay non-threatening but also be cool and youthful and particularly with Obama, be highly intelligent. This became a counterpoint to the recent image of black masculinity that emerged with 90s hip-hop, with rappers like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg or Dr. Dre., who were seen as oversexualized and criminal. Will Smith and Barack Obama came along and provided something new that lived between those poles and was widely embraced. So, it was an ideal template for Luce.

What about casting some of the more experienced actors?

Timing was fortuitous because JC has a really solid career as a TV writer, to say nothing about the reputation of LUCE as a play. When we started going out to actors, JC had already met with Octavia Spencer to discuss an unrelated TV project. We knew we wanted to go out to her first, so I sent her the script and we had a brief phone call. She told me she felt she knew Harriet Wilson as a person, which was a relief to me. With this role, Octavia really goes above and beyond.

Naomi Watts was dream casting as she was someone I envisioned when writing the script. Miraculously as the project started to pick up some buzz, we were lucky enough to bring Naomi on board, and Tim Roth soon followed. They both blew me away and between them they gave life to the vital roles – and audience surrogates – of Amy and Peter.

What made you want to set the movie in Arlington, Virginia?

For one thing, they don't make a lot of movies set in Arlington. Outside of Arlington Road and another Naomi Watts movie, Fair Game, that's all I can think of. It's distinctively suburban, but it's also a melting pot — South Arlington has a big immigrant population, mostly Salvadoran and Bolivian, and while it's not actively segregated, it's divided by real estate values. I knew from my own experience, having gone to Washington - Lee High School (recently renamed Washington- Liberty) in the middle of Arlington, that it was a melting pot inside of a melting pot, even though it's predominantly white.

Arlington was also interesting because, like many places, it has progressive ideals that run up against internalized prejudices that people either aren't aware of or refuse to acknowledge.

The reference to "black black" in the movie — someone who is really black versus someone who is black but accepted among whites — is something that actually happened to me in chemistry class. The subject of race came up and a Filipino-American student said "Oh, Julius isn't really black!" Nobody batted an eye! I could list 20 incidences like that that found their way into the story.

What do you think makes Luce controversial as a character?

Luce represents the best and worst of black identity. He’s got this effortless brilliance and charm, is a great speaker, and a talented athlete. But at the same time, he has a history of violence as a child soldier. His story is very complicated. There’s a segment of the African American community that feels it's important that stories that come out dealing with black identity must be aspirational — they should convey a positive message and lift up the race. It's understandable why so many of us seek stories of wish-fulfillment and uplift after a long history of being marginalized, objectified and criminalized in popular culture. But the challenge comes when confronting the systemic conditions that oppress many groups.

The catharsis of wish-fulfillment can often distract from the reality so many actually face and allow systems of power imbalance to go without being confronted or interrogated. It absolves those who hold power from having to reflect on their role in contributing to the marginalization of others. This happens on every level: class, gender, sexuality, race and more. If those systems of power are not truly confronted or interrogated, how can they be dismantled?

Without tension, without conflict, and without ambiguity in our stories and characters, it’s very difficult to discover how to move forward. As Americans we seem unable to discuss in a forthright way the things that make us uncomfortable, or the things that terrify us, without sentimentalizing them or reducing them to their most symbolic value. If our stories only pacify us, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

What do you hope audiences take away from this movie?

I hope it gives people an opportunity to reflect and ask questions. Whatever they feel about the movie is theirs to feel — for me, it's more about the opportunity to reflect upon and engage with ideas.

I hope people embrace its ambiguity, and I hope it gets under their skin, leaving viewers to question where they fit into all of this. I hope it challenges them to stand outside of their own experience and POV and forces them to ask how they are participating in the way privilege and power operates in this country and in our world.

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