Director's Chair: Julius Onah — <I>Luce</I>
Issue: July/August 2019

Director's Chair: Julius Onah — Luce

Luce, the latest film from Nigerian American writer/director/producer Julius Onah, is a smart, unnerving psychological thriller that couldn’t be more timely in today's America of the Black Lives Matter and #Metoo movements.

An all-star high school athlete and accomplished debater, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a poster boy for the new American Dream. As are his parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who adopted him from a war-torn country a decade earlier. But when Luce's teacher (Octavia Spencer) makes a shocking discovery in his locker, Luce's stellar reputation is called into question. But is he really at fault or is Ms. Wilson preying on dangerous stereotypes?

Adapted from JC Lee’s acclaimed off-Broadway play, the intense, multi-layered film focuses in on questions of racism, prejudice and identity in America, and premiered at Sundance 2019 to wide acclaim.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Onah (pictured, left), whose credits include the sci-fi horror film The Cloverfield Paradox with producer J.J. Abrams and his ambitious multimedia project Open Continents, talks about making the movie and his love of post. 

Plays and movies are such different creatures. How challenging was it adapting the original play?

“It really started in the writing, and I was hyper-conscious about that. I studied theater in college and am very passionate about movies, and you have to recognize that they are so different — not just visually, but in terms of rhythms and language and portraying ‘reality.’ Plays are confined and there’s a unity of place, but movies have to move — that’s why they’re ‘movies.’ So the key was figuring out the core themes and taking things that happened in the text and opened them up. Then we created more characters and more situations, hopefully making them visual and with the energy of a film. And it was a lot of fun to do that. A big part of how that all started was that I co-wrote it with JC, and I wrote the first draft as he was so busy with TV projects, and then we traded back and forth.”

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“I love thrillers, and one of the things that I recognized right away with the play was that it was built like a thriller. So just in terms of genre, I wanted it to move with that kind of machinery, with an energy and a sense of surprise and momentum, and to keep the audience fully engaged in a story that’s dealing with a lot of really contentious and timely issues. The second component was to really explore all those issues — but not in a preachy, didactic way. And I wanted to embrace the ambiguity in the story and allow the audience to supply their own answers.” 

What were the main themes you wanted to explore?

“It’s really a movie about power and privilege and race relations and gender and class, and although JC produced the play back in 2013, long before Trump arrived on the political scene and the explosion of movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter, obviously all that played into the movie. But we wanted to stay true to the original story and the way society treats different people in different ways. Who  has  p o w e r,  who doesn’t,  and  how institutions   a n d   t h e i r   power  c a n   disenfranchise women, the LGBTQ  community, people of color, and  other  marginalized  groups. There’s also the way people are put in boxes. You’re either a sinner or a saint, a hero or a villain, and very often people are dehumanized when they’re put in those boxes. So part of the film’s about how we put people in boxes, and how we’re all complicit in creating the power structure that exists today.” 

I assume that, as a Nigerian who grew up in America, you really related to the character of Luce?

“Absolutely. And for anyone who’s come from another country, there’s always that element of feeling like an outsider, and I could very much relate to that, especially when you throw in the element of being black as well. There’s ways people think about identity, and there’s a set of expectations, and you have to navigate all that.”

Casting the right actor as Luce was crucial. What did Kelvin Harrison, Jr. bring to the role as Luce?

“One of the trickiest things is dealing with so much dense text when you adapt a play, and I was very concerned about finding a young actor who could deal with it and go toe-to-toe with experienced actors like Octavia, Naomi and Tim. And Kelvin brought this incredible commitment to the role as well as a great understanding of the mechanics of his character, the way he’s always performing in the film for different people in different ways. He code-switches, and talks to his black athletic friends in one way, his teachers in another way, his family in yet another way, and Kelvin got all that and also had a very firm grasp of the language.” 

Why did you set it in Arlington, VA, and shoot there? No one makes movies there?

(Laughs) “You’re right, but I moved there when I was 10, and grew up there, and so I knew it well. The play’s set in non-descript suburbia, but a film needs specificity, so Arlington fit the bill, and it’s also a very interesting case study for these kinds of issues as it’s liberal, suburban America. It’s also a big melting pot, with a sizable immigrant population, and while it’s liberal in many ways, people also have prejudices — which they’re not even aware of, perhaps, so it seemed like a great environment to set it in.”

How tough was the shoot?

“We had a very short schedule — just 25 days — for what we had to do, so that was hard. But shoots are always tough, and this had its share of challenges. We also shot on film as I believe it’s still the best acquisition format, and that made it more expensive, but I was also the producer, and we worked with the budget to be able to do it, and give it the look I wanted.”

Where did you post?

“All in New York, at a variety of places, including Technicolor PostWorks where we did the DI, and SoundLounge and SoundTrack, plus some work in L.A. at Smart Post and Formosa. In the end we spent a good seven months on it, quite a long time.”

Do you like the post process?

“My background’s in post and I absolutely love it, because it’s where you really bring together all the different intentions and make your movie. So much of filmmaking is about intentionality — what the actors are trying to accomplish, what the writer, the DP, the sound guys and all the crew are trying to do — and in post you get to rewrite and hopefully a certain magic happens. People see things you can’t even see, and then you put two images together and get all this tension, or you change the order of a couple of scenes and it’s a whole new thing. I just love it.” 

Talk about editing with Madeleine Gavin, whose credits include both narrative and documentary films, such as Rebecca Cammisa's Academy Award-nominated documentary, Which Way Home, which earned her an Emmy nomination, and the Netflix Original Documentary, City  Of  Joy, which she also directed. How did that work?

“She didn’t come to the set, and we just sent dailies back to her, and she did the assembly. I actually don’t like watching the assembly. It just feels like a weird out-of-body experience to me. So we’d get that done, but it was wasn’t like, ‘Here’s a version of the film,’ but more like, ‘Here’s a sequence of scenes, and let’s start from that.”

What were the big editing challenges?

“There’s a lot of ambiguity in the film, and dealing with that and the thriller aspect was the big one. How do you give people enough information so they’re willing to go on the ride, but not too much that you spoil any of the surprises? So you’re constantly negotiating all that, as just one line here and there can make a huge difference in what an audience will go with in the film, and what they won’t. And sometimes it can be the simplest thing, like keeping a shot of a look, which then throws off everything later on. So we had to work very hard to keep it all balanced. I wasn’t there every day with her as I was actually in post on another movie in LA, The Cloverfield Paradox, which couldn’t be more different from this. So I’d shot this film back east, then I’d come back to LA and I bounced back and forth between the two films for the editing and post.”

You had some VFX. How many were there?

“More than you’d think — several hundred, done by Brainstorm. There was the usual cleanup, but they’re all in the service of character.”

Talk about the importance of sound and music, which are so important in thrillers.

“Yes, it’s massive, and I wanted the sound to feel like another character, and we worked with the great supervising   sound editor and mixer Leslie Shatz who really understood the film, and had some very smart ideas. So we imposed various limitations, so the sound would feel a little off-kilter, and he removed every laugh from all the principals and from the backgrounds, and you don’t notice at first, so it becomes this cool, art-house, more cerebral film. Other subtle things we did to make you feel uneasy were to mix gun-shots into the mix every time he slammed his locker — and there’s a lot of that as it’s set in high school, and it refers back to his child-soldier past without hitting you over the head with it. And we used gunshots at other critical moments, and did the mix at SoundTrack. As for the music, I didn’t want the usual clichés, and I had two Brit composers — Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury — who did Ex Machina, and they gave me the perfect score.”

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?

“Again, it’s huge for me, and Larkin Seiple, the DP, and I did it with colorist Alex Bickel. Larkin had this great term, ‘punchy naturalism,’ and we upped the color saturation, crunched it a bit, and removed all red from the film, so it’s a very cool look with an edge.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?

“It did, and I hope it makes people think about all the issues it raises.”