The last shift (Photo: Mott Hupfel)
Andrew Cohn, proud Midwestern and versatile filmmaker, is fascinated by the invisible men and women of the forgotten America and has created a range of documentary works that experience humble, real life without condescension or pity. Features like Medora or Night School deal with their issues in a compassionate and collaborative manner – a teenage basketball team in the small town of Indiana or adult students struggling with economic and personal problems.
Now translating that honesty into fiction with The Last Shift, his first screenplay film, Cohn continues to give a voice to the working poor, in this case two fast-food workers in Michigan he hails from, whose relationship bridges the gap between race and ideology illustrated. that polarized the country. Desolation and ironic humor mix with Stanley (Richard Jenkins), who worked on the graveyard shift at the chicken and fish establishment for 38 years, and Jevon (Shane Paul McGhie), a young African-American father on probation who is going to become the veteran finally on.
Cohn believes that films about fast food restaurants have not been successful in the past, largely because people don't want to spend an hour and a half watching the insides of those establishments. He also says that these are visually uninteresting places, saturated with orange and yellow neon lights. However, his dedication to telling stories about the everyday people in the politically vicious region he calls home led him to pursue this as his transition project.
In conversation, Cohn discussed his transition to fictional narratives, how the documentation process influenced his interactions with actors, and what lessons Richard Jenkins taught him. The last shift opens today.
Filmmaker: Have you ever worked in a fast food restaurant?
Cohn: I worked in fast food a hundred years ago when I was 15 or 16 years old. I worked at Burger King. Honestly, the script and story are really just an extension of my documentary work, which is interested in ordinary people who live in the cracks of society. I'm interested in the people you see on the bus or work at the airport, the people we are just passing by. I've always been fascinated by the inner workings of people who are not normally represented in the cinema. I'm not sure why, but a lot of my films have this underdog quality. I've always been interested in stories about outsiders. Maybe it's because I see myself a bit as an outsider. I didn't go to a fancy film school and my path was bumpy. It wasn't a very straight path.
Filmmaker: There are very compelling and balanced conversations about race and privilege in film – conversations that people often avoid for fear of conflict in real life. Even the movie's conclusion speaks for the divide and polarization that was born, but with an air of necessary ease.
Cohn: I wrote this film for two years, I probably wrote a hundred drafts of the script. I didn't just sit down and write over a weekend. There has been a lot of thought about the themes and characters. All of my films have been about Americana. I'm from the Midwest and this particular region of the country is often misunderstood, especially in film. I just wanted to write something for an audience of one. I said, "I don't see this movie out there. I want to do it for myself," which may be selfish, but that's just the starting point. I wanted to take a very familiar trope, or almost a subgenre, that was that kind of Black and white two-handed, where the black teaches the white to loosen up and the white teaches the black to take responsibility, and that utterly undermines expectations and write a film that I think is a much more honest portrayal of race and class and the working poor. It's not an activist film. A lot of the films you are currently seeing as they near the race are either too rosy or too terrible. That's my personal opinion. There is still a huge middle ground where there is subtle racism, misunderstanding and misunderstanding. It's more about what is sometimes not said. In terms of the ending, it was about finding something that was truthful and honestly is where I thought we were a country in terms of dialogue, whether or not we have race. If I can make a film that shows two flawed working class men with a glimmer of hope how alike they actually are, then I feel like I have done my job.
Filmmaker: Was there a point where you thought about making the documentary version of this film about the lives of fast food workers? Or did fiction always feel like the right approach for this project?
Cohn: For me it was a personal choice based on where I was in my career. I had started to want to make feature films and I turned to documentaries out of necessity. I didn't really have the tools or resources to just go out and make a narrative independent film, and I probably didn't have the confidence right out of college either. So I was a screenwriter and struggled with it for a long time in Los Angeles. I remember talking to my mother. It was right after I ran out of money in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter I had some small successes, I had written three or four scripts, but very mediocre, and my mother said, "I don't see why you don't just make documentaries." I was a documentary filmmaker. I went to the library and watched 10 documentaries at the same time. After all, I got sick of waiting and made documentaries for 10 years and fell in love with her. I just loved the immediacy and that you flex all those muscles in real time when it comes to story editing, character development, structure, and all of those things you learn while scripting. In the documentary, you're there in the moment and you make decisions and then you get into editing and it's a completely different animal. But after making documentaries for 10 years, it just wasn't new and exciting. I stopped growing and I felt it was time to challenge myself, try and do what I originally planned to do, which was to make storytelling films. Making documentaries was my film school.
Filmmaker: Was the leap into narrative fiction difficult – working in a controlled environment as opposed to captured events that happened in real time? Of course there is manipulation in both cases, but how were the skills translated from one to the other?
Cohn: I would say there are some myths there. For one thing, I think if you are a good documentary maker, you control what is going on. Probably more than the audience thinks. I think when you are a narrative filmmaker there is a lot more out of your control than people are probably thinking. Especially when you really empower your actors, empower your staff to take responsibility for their work and listen. That's the main thing I would say you can transfer from documentary to narrative skills. It carries over a lot more seamlessly than I thought. The main job of a storytelling director is to know the difference between a good and a bad performance. And if you've spent hundreds of hours interviewing and making documentaries, you've been with lots of real people, had lots of real conversations, and can sniff out that sincerity. Making documentaries I could tell when people would put it on for me. I always say that in documentaries, they should be one of the best acting categories. The way you talk to an actor is similar to the way you talk to one of your documentary subjects.
Filmmaker: For the main location, did you have to construct the spaces we see on screen, or did you shoot in an actual store?
Cohn: It was a restaurant that had just closed. We shot in Chicago and basically started with the bones of a restaurant that didn't exist anymore and built a set on it, but they had a lot of gear there, which was nice, but we came in and built other rooms like the office you see. It worked and we were able to rehearse in the actual restaurant for a week, which was very helpful for me as a first-time narrator.
Filmmaker: When you first started writing this script for actors, did you primarily focus on the characters first, or did the subjects come up first?
Cohn: My approach to writing is to always start with a character. And similar to my work in documentary film, I don't like to start with big topics and find characters who fit into them and communicate these ideas. I like to start with a blank canvas, with an open mind, start with a figure and then let the subjects come out through it organically so that I don't force a perspective, point of view, or a social problem. I'm not trying to achieve anything with this character. I allow them to live and breathe and be flawed and contradict each other in a way that feels real and honest like normal people do. Alexander Payne has been a kind of stewardship for the film since day one. And what I love about his films is that all of his protagonists are completely flawed, not saying the right things, and that they are messy. Hopefully that creates authenticity.
Filmmaker: How did Stanley come about as a character who takes pride in his job when others look down on him?
Cohn: First, when I was working in fast food, as we discussed at the beginning, there were people like the manager who really took his job seriously. Then when I was on a teaching scholarship in Albion, Michigan, where the film is taking place, I noticed these types of older generation workers, whether they worked at Wal-Mart or a Taco Bell. It started here. It was about this guy who really loves his job. You always hear the other man who is in a difficult situation and who regrets it, but this is the man who does not regret it. He has the best job in the world working at Oscar & # 39; s Chicken and Fish for 38 years. And I said, "That's interesting." This is a place where I can start with a really interesting character and then build from there.
Filmmaker: Stanley seems happy with what he's accomplished in life. There are no significant changes in his personality throughout the movie, but he is also not excused for certain behaviors or opinions.
Cohn: Stanley is certainly in control of his restaurant, in his tiny little world. But first of all, the movie doesn't take place over a long period of time and the idea that these two characters are going to have a realization, a life-changing change, would feel compelled. Real people don't change in four days. For Stanley, played by Richard Jenkins, his story is pretty tragic, and my goal is to really hold that character's feet by the fire for the choices he makes and the things he says, and him not to let the hook off the hook, and for Jevon, played by Shane Paul McGee, to have hope at the end of his story. For me it's a film about the place. It's about two people who really have so much more to gain when they get together than from the politicians and the dialogue that's going on in America right now, which is really pulling us apart. It's a very delicate time, but the truth is that we all want the same thing as human beings, and politicians have especially prayed about our differences and unnecessarily widening that gap. There is a large part of Central America that feels like things are getting out of hand. So I wanted to bring some brains and some lightness with me. It's so interesting to be able to examine these issues in comedy, to be able to disarm someone with comedy, and then talk about something that can feel very relevant. And you see some of the great comics of all time: Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock or Richard Pryor can discuss really important topics through comedy.
Filmmaker: Richard Jenkins seems to have an affinity for characters who often exist in the background of life until he brings that to the fore with some kind of humble truthfulness.
Cohn: He's from the Midwest too. He's from a very small town and called DeKalb, Illinois. When we first met and talked about the movie, we barely talked about the character in the movie. We mostly talked about our past, where we came from, our perspectives and our sense of humor. He taught some really big lessons. One was that he only takes on roles that he thinks he can make a difference, and I remember talking to my manager about the next steps for my career after this movie. I don't want to pretend I am something, not that I don't want to stretch, but he also told me, "You are all you have." And as an actor, he got into the role. And that was really an important lesson that I had to remember while we were making the film. It's okay to be just you You can't pretend to be someone else. The film has to be yours, the performance has to come from you. He's amazing in the movie. It's one of his best performances, and he took that role by the horns, fully owned it, committed it, and it's showing on screen.
Filmmaker: Filmmaking is one such elite art form that influences who is allowed to tell which stories based on their resources and access. When you put these lives in the spotlight, is there a sense of responsibility in how they are told or how these people are portrayed?
Cohn: That's one of the reasons I started in the documentary because I felt like you didn't need the resources to tell stories like this, and it really has been my calling card for a long time. If the filmmakers consistently come from a privileged location, the perspective they have on the material is similar. I've always said that I want to make a film about a place that people can see from there. And Alexander Payne is a perfect example of this, someone from Omaha, Nebraska, who makes films that people across the country can enjoy. You go to the cinema to see yourself. And I love the fact that he makes films about this region, be it Nebraska or About Schmidt, that people from there can enjoy, laugh at themselves and not feel like their pain or struggle is being patronized or overly romanticized. This is really important to me. I would always use words like "reluctance" when talking about an arrangement or music. Just pull back and just try to be as honest as you can.
Filmmaker: Fast food restaurants lack aesthetic beauty or even homogeneity between all of them. How did you visually process this built-in limitation to turn it into something more cinematic?
Cohn: That kept me up at night. First, 65% of the movie is set in one location. How do you make this visually interesting? So I've talked a lot with my production designer, Adri Siriwatt, about how to do that in terms of color tones and not make it a “fast food movie”. Much of it stayed away from the reds and yellows and you can see that in their costumes we had no paper hats, no big, stupid aprons or name tags. I really wanted to move everything away so it didn't feel like a fast food movie. That was really important to me to make it feel a little more universal. I haven't seen a movie that really worked in a fast food restaurant for good reason. I don't think anyone wants to watch this for two hours. So it's been a long talk with my DP and my production designer about how we can tackle these challenges and I'm really happy with the visual result.
Filmmaker: When you talked about “restraint” in your decision-making process, what exactly are you referring to – formal decisions or the tone?
Cohn: Just don't fall into the trap of melodrama, don't bring performances to a place that feels caricatured. I trust that an audience will understand and will understand, and not have to hit people over the head with storylines or topics. I just understand that the audience is smarter than you think. The audience does not come to the cinema and want to drink from a hydrant. You know what I mean? You want to be able to give them a little to keep them busy, but you also want the texture of the film to organically fit the location. Michigan people speak a certain way and their mannerisms are a certain way, and I wanted to honor that in relation to the seriousness of that particular region.