Filmmaking: <I>One Night In Miami...</I> director Regina King
Issue: January/February 2021

Filmmaking: One Night In Miami... director Regina King

Set in 1964, One Night In Miami… is a fictional imagining of the historic night that brought together four legends of black sports, entertainment and activism. On February 25th of that year, Cassius Clay won the World Heavyweight boxing title. He later met up with friends Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Malcolm X in an Overtown, FL, motel. But rather than celebrate the victory, the four men reflected on the state of the civil rights movement and challenged each other on whether they were doing enough to advance its efforts.

The story is based on Kemp Powers’ award-winning play of the same name and stars Eli Goree as Cassius Clay (who would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali), Kingsley Ben-Adir as activist Malcolm X, Leslie Odom Jr. as music superstar Sam Cooke and Aldis Hodge as football-legend-turned-actor Jim Brown.

The film marks Regina King’s feature film directorial debut. Known for her acting accomplishments, including roles in Boyz N The Hood, 227, Jerry Maguire, Southland, The Leftovers and more recently If Beale Street Could Talk (which earned her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2019), King already had a number of television directing credits on her resume, including work on This Is Us, The Good Doctor, Animal Kingdom and Scandal. In this exclusive interview with Post, she details her work on this latest project, including its unique challenges, and how she was able to complete post production during the pandemic.

While this is your first feature film, you have done a lot of directing for television. Has that led to a preference in camera formats?

“I would say that I had a preference in that I knew exactly what it was that I wanted to achieve visually, but I relied on (cinematographer) Tami (Reiker) to choose the equipment that would achieve that. I knew that I wanted the film to be really rich and the color to be saturated. 

“Jacob Lawrence’s artwork was an inspiration and that was a jumping off point as far as color. And also that movie In the Mood For Love was another inspiration as far as color and warmth. Sharing those with her and explaining that I really wanted to make sure that there was energy in the frame, but I didn’t want the camera to be a distraction, kind of led her to the choices that she landed on as far as camera. And as far as the glass…that really helped give it that warmth. I relied on her to do what was needed to accomplish those things. She felt the best way to accomplish the energy in the camera and keep the camera moving the way I wanted was…to do handheld, but I still wanted energy throughout because we spent so much time in the (motel) room. She decided that we would shoot everything on jib arms. So if you are really watching, the camera never really stops moving, but it doesn’t distract you or feel swimmy in any way.”
What camera did you end up using?

“We used Arri [Alexa 65]. We didn’t use the Mini. I also know that one of the things that we were really firm on was using prime lenses. I think that also speaks to trying to stay authentic to the time period.”

You began shooting in early 2020. How did the pandemic affect production and post?

“We had shot the bulk of our photography right before the pandemic had started. We got out of New Orleans maybe a week or two before everything really jumped off, and we had two more scenes that we were going to shoot in LA, and that really pushed that back. 

“It made for a really difficult time with composing, because normally, I would have had the opportunity to sit with (composer) Terence (Blanchard) and we would spend a lot of time in a studio and kind of discover what is working and what’s not. And that opportunity was taken away. So everything was via emails and FaceTime calls. After three weeks or so of us trying to have musicians come together and do a version of that, it just wasn’t working for me. 

“The good thing is that I had (editor) Tariq Anwar and Terence —  being the veterans that they are, and being so good at what they do — remind me that this was not a normal thing. They both felt really bad that I wasn’t getting the experience that a director normally gets when it comes down to doing the score. Tariq says it’s usually such a wonderful experience: ‘It’s one of the best parts and you’re missing it and I feel so bad for you Regina.’ And Terence said the same thing. They both were so patient and understanding of my frustration.”

Talk about the role of music in this film?

“We ended up doing something that was very unique. We decide to make the piano the star. Benny Green has a really specific style of playing that’s specific to him and I, earlier on, made a playlist that, when I hear them, they make me think about the film — the energy that I felt either one of the characters would have or a scene would have. So he did have that blueprint as far as what was inspiring me, sonically, so I think that was helpful.

“So there wasn’t orchestral. It was Benny playing. One time I had that idea that I wanted an instrument or song that kind of was each characters’, and then all of those would kind of come together. Then, again, for the reasons I said before, it didn’t work out that way.”

Tariq Anwar was the principal editor. How often would you meet with him?

“Every single day. At first, I was about to shoot a film in Santa Fe, and so we set up the editing in Santa Fe. Tariq and (assistant editor) Naomi (Sunrise Filoramo) came to Santa Fe. And after I’d shoot, I would come in and sit with Tariq. He’d work all day, and I would come in and give notes and watch and work together. And we got about a week and a half to do that, and then the pandemic hit. But because we had set everything up in Santa Fe already, we just all stayed there, even though the production got shut down.

“Naomi was set up in one room and the editor in another room. They were able to remain separate. The facility that we were in was not over occupied. There were two productions that had just finished, so we were kind of the only ones in the building, and I would just work remotely. Tariq and I would do a share on our computers and I would just watch there. I’m pretty sure it was an Avid.”

Which scenes were the most challenging? So much of the film takes place in the motel room. Was it tough to make it seem like this was all taking place over just a few hours?

“Specifically the scene on the roof, and then the one scene in the room. The roof was a 10-page scene, and in the room, there was one that was 14-pages, and another that was 16 pages. And so obviously you are not going to get an entire 16-page scene in a day. It was a really major exercise for the actors. I know that it was going to be difficult. We didn’t really have a rehearsal period. So that is usually something that would be able to help you maximize your shooting time — rehearsing ahead of time. But we didn’t have the time to do that, so some of our time that would have been used for shooting, we had to use that for rehearsing and blocking.”

How did you prepare for that?

“I told the actors that I know this is not the conventional way you’ve worked before, but you do have to know this script like a play, when it comes to the scenes in the room and on the roof, because they are so long. We don’t have a lot of time and we are going to have weather challenges. We might have to jump back and forth from the roof to the hotel room just to get it done.”

The film is set in Florida, but you actually shot in Louisiana. Did that create any challenges?

“We had weather challenges, but luckily our production designer had a great idea to build the rooftop next to our stages, so the roof is really just a bunch of shipping crates. That allowed us to be able to go back and forth from the stages to the roof, without having to get in cars.”

What can you offer in terms of hindsight from your first feature?

“I think that I try to manage my own expectations, always, so I guess I like to keep expectations low, so that way you usually end up being surprised more times than disappointed.

“I was so grateful that we were able to get to the finish line because we had so many challenges — so many things against us. And every project has that, but when you are doing it independent, for a certain amount of money, there is a second level of anxiety that comes on when you find out two days before that you lost a location. Those things that you know are going to come, but when they do, you have to be solution based and it’s a little extra level of anxiety that comes with the solution-based thinking with an independent.” 

Did the film turn out as you had initially envisioned?

“I was very, very happy with the outcome. I feel like when we were starting to edit, at first I was like, ‘Yeah, I think we have a movie.’ And then we were digging in more, I thought, ‘Oh, this may be a film!’ I say movie versus film because, for me, when something is a movie, it’s just really serving entertainment purposes. The mistakes are forgiven because it’s for entertainment. You’re not going to sit down and have a long conversation afterwards. And then when you look at something as a film, you go, ‘This might leave a mark in people’s minds. They are going to remember it.’ I guess that’s what I feel the differences are. For a movie, it’s great for the moment, but you don’t always necessarily take it with you later.”