Blending together aspects of classic time-loop films and the timeliness of the real-life horrors faced by Black people in America, Two Distant Strangers is seeking to shake-up the short film category for this year's Academy Awards.
In Two Distant Strangers, "cartoonist Carter James’ repeated attempts to get home to his dog are thwarted by a recurring deadly encounter that forces him to re-live the same awful day over and over again."
Written by Travon Free, who co-directed with Martin Desmond Roe, the film stars Joey Bada$$, Andrew Howard and Zaria.
The film, which was recently announced to be a part of this year's Oscars shortlist, has a group of executive producers and/or investors that includes Diddy, Kevin Durant, Adam McKay, Marti Noxon and Damon Lindelof.
Shadow and Act recently got up with Free and executive producers Nicholas Maye and Van Lathan to talk about the production of the film and its impact. The film is also produced via the trio's Six Feet Over Productions.
Especially in the post-Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter era, police brutality has been a hot subject in Hollywood. How did you approach the project to make it different from the other narratives that have been done?
Maye: I think the approach we took in making this project was not to showcase what is going on every day but to express how we are feeling. Everybody can see the events that are transpiring. It is no secret, but I think in this project you can get a feel of how what is going on makes us feel.
Free: The approach here was to show how Black people do mundane things like go home to our dogs, but [we] are also constantly impeded by police and white people acting as if they are the police. It was to stress the idea that no matter what we do, there are people with badges and guns who wake up every day hoping to take someone out and it's usually one of us.
What was the influence of the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on this project?
Maye: It was heavily influenced by these tragic murders. We were all deeply impacted by them. Travon pretty much wrote the script right after and we were all emotional reading it because it is exactly how we felt.
Lathan: I think by looping Carter's experience with the cop, you get a holistic experience of the grief and powerlessness we feel. Also, It makes for a much more impactful moment when Carter takes his power back. Our movie isn't just about Carter. It's about Breonna, Eric, Trayvon, Sandra and everyone we've lost to this insanity. It's all their stories.
Lathan: The pandemic gave us something to beat. It also made us sit in the moment that we were in, and realize we had to be a part of the artistic expression of this moment. Nothing was going to stop us
Maye: It feels amazing. It is definitely a blessing to receive any type of notoriety for our work, but the real win is always just putting it out there and the people receiving it.
Free: It's truly a remarkable feeling. We have the opportunity to talk about the lives of people like George and Breonna on one of the biggest stages in the world and having the academy recognize a movie so timely and important and Black only shows the strides they're making to see beyond the typical parameters of the past.
Lathan: The Oscar love is absolutely amazing. Just validation that we all executed on Travon's vision. But more humbling is the cultural reaction the movie is getting, the fact that people feel what it is we're saying in a real way. That's its own reward.
What was the process in getting such high-profile EPs like Kevin Durant and Diddy to sign on?
Free: When I wrote the movie the next thing we needed was money to shoot it so we sent the script to everyone we knew who we thought Cared about the issues of the story and asked them to help us fund it. Diddy saw the movie after it was finished and wanted to be involved and help us push it as far and wide as possible.
Lathan: Getting to them. LOL. These are all guys we know, but they're at the very top of their professions, so them making time to hear us was crazy. We gave Diddy the full-court press. I'd literally check in with him every couple of days in every step of the process. One day he just said he was in. Jesse Williams was integral in that as well. We kind of culturally jumped him. He's been a great partner.
What do you hope people take away the most from the film?
Maye: To be honest, I hope people can appreciate how feelings were expressed as art and have an understanding of the emotions we have.
Do you think the reactions to the events of last summer have started to begin alleviating the systemic issues that plague Black people in America?
Maye: I don’t honestly know if it has started to alleviate anything, but I think it certainly brought more attention to the systemic issues that plague Black people in America, George Floyd specifically. It is one thing for the world to hear about what is going on, but for everyone to actually see this happen, I would certainly hope it sparked something.
Free: Nope. People have already moved on from last summer, which was expected, and is exactly why this movie needs to exist. To serve as a reminder that we will never forget.
Lathan: F**k no. It gave people something to think about, but they've largely already changed the channel. It's not about them it's about us. We don't ask, we demand. We don't beg, we bargain. We don't mourn we move. We will go as far in America as our collective will takes us. Art like ours reminds us who we are and what we're up against, but the work exists here in the real world.