The director and star of Morris from America talk racial sensitivity and teen pillow-sex
The coming-of-age drama raises some controversial questions about representation, but it's still all charm1
It’s hard to reconcile Chad Hartigan’s charming new movie Morris from America with the origin story he describes for it. Hartigan, who broke out as a filmmaker in 2013 with his highly praised second feature, This is Martin Bonner, is Caucasian, of Irish and American descent. The film was inspired by his own experiences growing up in Cyprus. And yet Morris from America is about an overweight, lonely black teenager (Markees Christmas) stuck in Germany, where his widower father (Chris Robinson) is a professional soccer coach. Morris has no black peers, or even friends who appreciate the American hip-hop music and gangsta-rap culture he’s drawn to. He’s mostly stuck hanging out with his father, Curtis, an erratic disciplinarian who clearly loves his son, but also finds him exasperating, for the usual teenager reasons. Their dynamic isn’t entirely healthy, but Morris’ relationship with the jaded, standoffish local teenagers isn’t much better. Hartigan’s film navigates Morris’ crush on a local girl, his relationship with his father, his struggles with a German bully, and his unbalanced friendship with his older German tutor (Carla Juri).
There are a lot of familiar roads for this kind of story to go down, and Hartigan feints at them, then dodges them entirely. Morris from America is enjoyable and accessible, but it’s also unconventional, both in its protagonist and in its narrative directions. It’s also surprisingly funny. Casting comedian Craig Robinson as Morris’ dad certainly helped. But the problems between Curtis and Morris file the film squarely under “family drama.” Those conflicts feel natural and heartfelt. They just don’t feel anything like the story of a white kid growing up in the Mediterranean. That’s caused a little controversy: an early Indiewire review accused Hartigan of “fetishizing” black characters, and says the film “treats its two African-American leading men like props in his white-washed game of chess.” I recently sat down with Hartigan and Robinson to talk about how Hartigan’s story became Morris’ story, how he handles accusations of cultural appropriation and exploitation, why he wanted to make the anti-Moonrise Kingdom, and how Robinson is navigating the most dramatic role he’s taken so far.
Tasha Robinson: This film started out as autobiography. When did it become a story about black racial identity?
Chad Hartigan: It was before writing anything. The way I work is, I compile ideas in my head until I have about six solid scenes, and then I feel like I can sit down to a blank page and start writing. In the process of coming up with scenes, it just popped into my head, "What if they're black?" Then the scenes I had thought of became clearer, and other scenes came to me right away. On a gut-instinct level, I was like, "That's probably the right move." I trusted that instinct of "Yes, that makes the movie seem clearer." And it also turned it into a movie I hadn't seen before. And then I started to write it. The first scene, where they're listening to hip-hop, the opening shot is pretty much exactly how I pictured it. It was so clear to me that that was the opening of this movie.
Are the six scenes you start with the big plot points for the story?
CH: Usually, sometimes. Although in this case, the very first scene was the pillow scene, which came from my own life. [It features Morris fantasizing about his crush, and practicing his sex moves on a pillow. —ed.] That was a story I would tell as an anecdote, and people would always laugh at it. I thought, "Well, that could be a good scene in a movie." Then a friend of mine complained on Facebook about traffic, and someone commented "Poor poor fatty fucko," and I thought, "That's harsh, but also a great movie title." So then I was like, "Well, what if the kid's overweight, and people can call him ‘poor poor fatty fucko'?" I had this title that obviously did not become the title, but I was compiling ideas, and then I finally started writing. I knew the fight about the lyrics was going be a scene. I knew the fight in the car would be a big scene. And then Markees at the party, going for a kiss. That was all in my head.
[To Craig Robinson] This isn't your first drama, but you've said it's the deepest you've gone into a dramatic character. Did your comedic work prepare you for this in any way?
Craig Robinson: Every comedy now is improv, is messing around, jump in where you can. This Is The End, to start out, I barely had any lines. It was just playing with those guys. So yeah, this is very different, and very welcome. Every time I start a movie, it's like, "Oh yeah, we'll just do some improv." I used to run from it, like [exaggerated sigh] "Improvising? We're here, just give me a script." But now that's in my arsenal. But this film was so welcome, because you come in, and you know what you're going to do. There are beautiful things that happen out of improv, but there's something nice about, "Okay, here's a script, this is what I'm studying, this is what's going down." Every film has some improv, because no matter how well you know the lines, the moment still has to be real. So you leave it up to the moment, whatever is gonna happen in that moment.
I knew at some point I would delve more into drama. But I especially wanted this role. I still got to be funny. But to prepare, I just emulated my father. When Curtis is talking to the tutor, that was straight Jack Robinson, like, "Why don't you worry about what you gotta do?" There was some drama in The Office, too. I didn't catch the brunt of too much of that, but watching the people I worked with, it was pretty much a drama clinic.
A lot of comedy has to be played like drama for it to be funny. But here, you're in a drama where you have to play it funny, because Curtis often expresses his anger and frustration with humor.
CR: Well, it felt real. Curtis and Morris are having real conversations. They're buddies in this movie. Buddies that just happen to be father and son. And they bump heads, but the one thing Curtis is doing is toeing the line of "Father or friend, father or friend?" One thing my father told me all the time was "I'm not your friend, I'm your father!" I didn't understand that at a young age. I was like, "That's terrible! He's not my friend!" But I get it now. Curtis, you know he feels guilty because he has a son there, his wife is dead, and so he's gotta give Morris some leeway, but also keep him close.
Craig, you were a music teacher, so you've been in that dynamic with kids, where you've had to be accessible, but a disciplinarian and a role model. Did that experience help here?
CR: Yeah, I mean, I wasn't that great a teacher. [laughs] But I was at my best when I was pissed off. When you first get into teaching, the teachers are like, "Don't smile, don't smile, do not smile, 'cause they'll see it. It's like you're in the wild, they'll see it and pounce on your weakness!" And I didn't listen!
The father / son relationship in Morris from America is especially complicated because Curtis is so clearly lonely, and dependent on his own kid for company. Is that autobiographical as well?
CH: None of that is autobiographical. My dad is not like Curtis at all. He's a good dad, and he taught me well, but not through music, and not with that tone. I could never curse to my dad.
CR: Me neither. [laughs]
CH: That's all kind of made up, and it's based on a friend of mine named Eugene who would tell these stories about his dad embarrassing him in front of his friends. Any time a friend would come over, his dad would pop into the room in his underwear and sing this song that went "Big Dick JEAAAN, Big Dick JEAAAN." It's like "What kind of dad is that?"
And so that's where I built from. That and also... my mom really found those lyrics of mine that you see in the film, the "fuckin' all the bitches" lyrics. I got in big trouble because they were explicit. And I wanted to use that scene in this movie, but I was like "Wouldn't it be funnier if [Morris] got in trouble because the lyrics are bad, not because they're explicit?" And that led to another question: "What kind of parent is that?" And those kinds of things are what created the Curtis dynamic.
When you saw the script, Craig, what connected you to it?
CR: The dialogue. Particularly Curtis' dialogue. The way he talks just resonated with me. It's like, "That's how I talk." He loves hip-hop. I can see their relationship, I could see his trials, and having to toe that line between friendship and fatherhood. And then there was so much heart to it. Those were the things where I was like "Yeah, I'm into it."
One of the first Sundance reviews... [Hartigan nods and grimaces.] Okay, so you've seen it. That review levels some really heavy accusations about the racial implications of a white writer-director making this movie about a black father and son. You must have been aware that some people would react that way. How did you navigate the issue of racial sensitivity?
CH: I did think about it. I expected it, or I figured it could be a possibility. And my attitude is, if that stuff comes at me, I just have to listen to it. Particularly if it comes from a black person. I have no defense against a black person who thinks the movie has some insensitivity. They're right. No matter what, that's how they feel, and they're right. So I'm not going to argue with anyone. I do feel like I came at it from the right place. From the heart. You know, I don't want to make movies just about people like me. I want to make movies to teach people, I want to make movies to understand, I want to make movies to explore, and to be adventurous. So there is some risk to alienating people, or getting some things wrong.
And it's not just the black characters in the movie. It's the German characters. I don't know anything about being German. So the media currently, there's a lot of scrutiny on race in particular. But as a writer, it's just as difficult to write those German characters. Or to write female characters. Or to write a father. Anything that I'm not personally. But I did understand that it was something I could be criticized for. It doesn't offend me personally, but it was very nice to see that start a dialogue, and people come to my defense. You know, I have talked to people that felt like it was naïve in some ways. But I just listen.
Are you both getting the same criticism, or the same response?
CR: Well, speaking from inside the movie, I didn't feel like that. I didn't feel exploited. There's a whole category of black exploitation movies, and this doesn't fit into that.
CH: Yeah, when I was writing it, I was trying to get the script to the place where it wasn't embarrassing to show people. That's all I was really hoping for. And then from there, I was really relying on my collaborators. Like, I was relying on the Germans to tell me anything I wrote for the Germans wasn't right. And they would. Something as small as a character making pancakes in the morning. They were like, "Germans don't eat pancakes." "Oh, all right." Or with something larger, they're like, "No, no German would react this way." So I do welcome that kind of collaboration. That's the key to elevating your material. If Craig had ever said, "I wouldn't say this, I wouldn't have done that—"
CR: When I read the script, I thought the director was black. [laughs] Like I said, the script is how I talk. Chad left the work up to us. And if we had a problem, he'd change it, but it was very much like, "Okay, yeah, I see where you're going, I like that. Okay, thank you." So it was collaborative and open.
CH: I feel like 90 percent of directing is done in the writing and the casting, and then you shouldn't have to do all that much on set. You're there to keep things on time, and make sure you can get everything you need, maybe get a few different shot options. But there was never a case where anyone showed up on set and was way out in left field, and I had to say, "No, no, no, this is not the movie we are making." I pretty much find who the character is on the page, and then find the person I feel I'd have to do the least amount of work with.
There was also an interview out of Sundance where you were teasing Markees about a girl he was interested in, and he got really embarrassed and shut down. How do you get something as intimate as that pillow scene out of a teenager? How do you make him comfortable enough to be that revealing?
CH: I thought it was going to be harder, honestly. He was nervous in the build-up to it. Like, a few days before, I was like, "You ready for that pillow scene, Markees?" And he'd be like, [nervous, exasperated sigh]. But on the actual day, he just did it. And I was prepared to say, "This pillow is the girl, I really need to believe this pillow is the girl you care about." But I never even had to say it. And by take three, he was going wild. And we're like, "That's too much, too much, Markees." We rehearsed with him, and I tried to build a rapport with him before shooting. But on set, it was really just a matter of keeping him focused. And once he was there, he really dove in.
It's not just that pillow scene. He had to rap in front of a hundred extras, and all these other things that would make any normal person very nervous. And he was nervous, but he still did it. Actually, the thing he dreaded the most was a scene that got cut from the movie, where he had to give the girl a hickey. He was much, much more embarrassed about that scene than the pillow one. And in the interview, he kind of clammed up that day. Which I can understand. When I was 15, if I had to talk about these things in front of a bunch of people, that would have been embarrassing.
You've said that the main stylistic difference between Morris from America and This is Martin Bonner come from the fact that here, you wanted the camera to represent Morris' point of view. How did that play into the filmmaking for you?
CH: I worked with the same cinematographer I always work with, Sean McElwee, on both films. And he agreed on that philosophy. So from the very beginning, when he saw the script, I asked "What are you thinking?" And he said, "It should feel unpredictable, it should feel loose, and it should feel like anything could happen, because that's what I remember feeling, the first time I was falling in love." Morris is also a direct response to Moonrise Kingdom, which I did not like. I felt it was trying to capture the feeling of first love, but it was so rigid, and so restricted by the aesthetic. And I was like, "No. That feeling, to me, is unpredictable and wild." And it started from there.
Note: Morris from America is available on demand via DirecTV. It's opening on theatrical screens in New York and Los Angeles on August 19th, with a wide rollout to follow on August 26th.