Knucklehead: Tracking an American Hero

Knucklehead

It’s inspiration time here at Mediander, as we sit down for an interview with up-and-coming screenwriter Bryan Abrams, whose fantastic new movie, Knucklehead, starring Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire) and Alfre Woodard (Crooklyn, 12 Years a Slave), is making the festival rounds. It recently opened the New Voices in Black Cinema series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and won the Minnesota Made award for feature narratives at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. Cowritten with the film’s director, Ben Bowman, Knucklehead tells the story of Langston (Akinnagbe), a Bedford-Stuyvesant native with an abusive mother (Woodard) and an unspecified mental disability, who embarks on a quest to become “mentally excellent” via drugs gotten from an elusive doctor. Take a look at the trailer, then read about the perils and joys of independent filmmaking.

Tell us how you became involved with Knucklehead. And how did the writing collaboration function, exactly?

I wrote a screenplay I had no idea what to do with, and when I moved to New York, in 2005, I got on Craigslist, searching for people to work with. Ben had recently finished NYU’s grad program in directing and had posted for screenwriters to collaborate with. We met to talk about our projects—in particular an eight-minute documentary he’d made about a guy in Bed-Stuy, which was the inspiration for Knucklehead. Ben turned out to be a social guy who liked working closely together and arguing about the story. When we hit upon an idea we liked, Ben would go, “Write it, writey!” and I’d go type it up because I was technically the writer. Eventually we’d switch roles, and I’d make him do the typing. I learned a lot from Ben—most of all, that collaboration is hard but very rewarding if you remember you both have the same goals. And really, no other person or entity could give a shit whether you finish the project.

What about Knucklehead attracted you so strongly?

Langston’s optimism is so alien to me. I’m prone to melancholy, to disliking myself, so I marveled at this guy who who has every reason to despair and give up, but who incredibly, perhaps insanely, refuses to do so. I never thought I was concerned with the racial aspects. To my mind, I was really just interested in writing about this character. I now think I’m very much interested in the differences between my childhood, my surroundings, and Langston’s, by how easy I’ve had it compared to someone like him, and of course am embarrassed or shocked and saddened. I became intrigued with his world, which is our world.

This film was a lengthy labor of love, involving multiple drafts and hurdles to be overcome, particularly in funding. You began 10 years ago! Tell us a little about those challenges, and how you stayed committed in the face of so many obstacles.

In a world where comic books are the main source of material, if you’re trying to make a movie about a possibly autistic black guy and his passionate love for pharmaceuticals and a doctor who dispenses dime-store medical knowledge, you should expect it to take forever to get made. This was not an easy film to pitch.

Ben made great sacrifices with his health, finances and personal life for the film. We had a thousand or so script meetings and a dozen or more fundraisers, came close to getting funding and then lost it a handful of times, so by year six we were like, Well, it would be stupid to give up now, after we’ve put all this fucking time into it. The thing created its own atmosphere—and inertia, perhaps. There were stretches of months when we didn’t talk, and vigorous debates when we were talking, yet the goal was bigger than whatever lulls or disagreements we had, and we always came back together. I stuck in there because he kept sticking in there.

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The performances are amazing. How did you end up working with your stars, and what did their participation do for your confidence? Did they suggest changes or take you in unexpected directions?

When Gbenga got involved and made it clear he intended to produce as well, the film gained fresh momentum. Because Gbenga and Alfre knew each other, we could get the script to her. One day, I got a text that Alfre was in, and next thing I knew, I was at Hayden 5 Media (a group of supermotivated guys who helped produce), sitting with Ben, Alfre and Gbenga, going over the script. Having Alfre there, saying she really liked it and believed in it, was definitely the best day of my career to date.

They suggested small things, and Gbenga wanted a couple of line changes, especially on set, but once we’d whittled the script down to a size we could shoot (we couldn’t afford more than 90 pages!), it stayed relatively intact. Their passion, intelligence and performances improved our words immeasurably. In her final scene, after an intense battle with Langston, Alfre exposes the humanity beneath her character’s meanness, and that single moment elevates the entire movie. Gbenga shows us how heroic Langston is there—he won’t hurt his mother back. That’s his character boiled down to the essence. Those guys kicked fucking ass.

Did you set out to correct or expand Hollywood’s depictions of African American characters, families and stories, or of characters with mental illness, particularly impoverished ones?

No, we knew these stories weren’t being told, but we were telling ours because it genuinely interested us. We’d never seen anybody like Langston on-screen and we wanted to do our best to tell his story. After writing thousands of pages in Langston’s head, we really knew him. I could hear his voice, and I knew how he’d respond to things and phrase things. He’s named after a poet, so we gave him a very particular voice. He would be awkward, obsessive, misguided, possibly delusional—but not dumb, not dark. In many ways, he’s the smartest guy in the room.

Talk for a moment about the relationship between Langston and his mother, Sheila, which is extremely complicated and heartbreaking. What were your models for that? What did you want your viewers to consider during some of the painful scenes between mother and son?

I’m glad you feel their relationship was complicated, rather than just depressing and unhealthy. We gave Sheila a backstory as a poet and an artist, and we thought Langston’s father walked away because raising that kid was clearly going to be an issue. Sheila had been a dynamic, bright, beautiful woman who watched all her youth’s possibilities curdle, and now she’s in this small apartment, leaning on the bottle, no prospects, no write-up in The Village Voice about her work; she’s got this grown son who’s still very much a child. I want people to feel her rage at the way her life turned out, and how she loves Langston but can’t show him any tenderness because she’s been so mad for so long. She’s fierce and formidable but, crucially, needs Langston, since “taking care” of him became her identity. And there’s something not quite right about them—a blurred boundary that appears after she beats him and then wants to lie down next to him, be near him. There is love there; it’s just been poisoned.

There are plenty of monster mothers in film, but Ben always brought up Livia Soprano from The Sopranos. She traded on her age and infirmity to diabolical effect—she tried to have her son killed. What a great, terrifying character she was, because her withering contempt for so many things was so believable. We wanted Sheila to be someone you’ve met, someone whose pain has a real source. Nothing’s more boring than a monster without a reason.

This film has a strong, classic structure, with many hallmarks of the legendary hero’s journey through trials and into maturity, as Joseph Campbell described in his work on mythology. Did you and Ben discuss that at all?

Ha, well, we discussed screenwriting mechanics for years. We’d both read Robert McKee’s bible, Story, as well as David Mamet’s books, and we tried following the rules as best we could, taking inspiration from storytelling classics like Chinatown. We labored for a three-act structure with everything in the right place (“Inciting incident happens too late! Move it up, move this, crunch that, lose the exposition!” etc.), but we still had to make a massive amount of last-second rewrites. We had solid waypoints—a shooting, the search for Langston’s doctor in Manhattan, the closing fight with Sheila—that helped us structure the rest in a way we hoped would satisfy viewers’ innate sense of how a story should unfold. But this really became a film in the editing bay. We had to lose major plot points and characters just to shoot this thing in 17 days or so; a lot of credit goes to our editor, Katie Ennis, for helping us shape it.

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What was it like for you guys, as non–African Americans, to write a script to evoke a specific African American milieu? The larger themes are universal, but did you worry that you weren’t getting the tone right, or, as you’ve been promoting the film, that black writers or filmmakers would be judged as more authentic?

I told myself from the start that I couldn’t concern myself with people being like, “Why are you writing this story, you little suburban white boy,” because then I’d have been terrified into inaction. Even though so much of Langston is due to his milieu, we were helped by his being just very unusual regardless of his skin color. But you’d be surprised at how little this actually came up and how infrequently anyone asked about it. We’d joke about it occasionally, and Gbenga and Alfre probably did too, but it really wasn’t a thing. This is probably because we were genuine—we were really into this story—and hopefully that protected us a bit.

What’s next for this film? Any way our readers can help?

If your readers like what they hear, or are even moderately interested, they can reach out and ask to have the film played where they are. And of course, tell your friends to keep an eye out for it.

Knucklehead next screens at the Dances With Films festival in Los Angeles on June 6.

Photos courtesy of Ben Bowman

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