Interview: Ali LeRoi on Breaking a Cycle with “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson”

When Ali LeRoi was asked to judge the LAUNCH screenplay competition in 2018, he didn’t know he’d be leaving a winner as well

“I’ve been wanting to direct a feature for a quite a while and for what it’s worth, I only have my ongoing success in television to blame for me not having time,” laughs LeRoi, the co-creator of “Everybody Hates Chris” who was intrigued with the invitation to direct “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” after giving its first-time screenwriter Stanley Kalu a million-dollar prize. “This happened at an interesting time and in an odd way and I’m just really happy that things worked out in the way they did.”

You could see why LeRoi was taken with the possibilities of Kalu’s script, an inventive drama that employs a time loop to gradually reveal the multitudes within its titular character, a high school senior who navigates a minefield every day just going to class and back. As the son of Nigerian immigrants, Tunde (Steven Silver) stands out amongst his largely caucasian classmates at St. Ambrose Prep, though his parents are just as wealthy as anyone’s at the private school, but the pressure to present himself a certain way is unrelenting when he also happens to be gay, something he hasn’t yet told his parents who he fears will disapprove.

Built around an event that’s sadly all too predictable when police size up Tunde strictly by the color of his skin during a late night traffic stop, “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” surprises again and again as it peels back every avenue the young man could take during the day leading up to it, whether it’s having a heart-to-heart with his father (Sammi Rotibi) or commiserating with friends Soren (Spencer Neville) and Marley (Nicola Peltz) who all know a different side of him, and as the film reveals Tunde in all his complexities, it becomes equally exciting to see LeRoi in a new light, taking on a drama where the empathy and eye for composition that has long accentuated his comedies can take center stage, inviting audiences to look deeper in a variety of ways.

With “The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” now arriving in virtual cinemas after a year in which it has only seemed to become more timely by the day since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, LeRoi spoke about how he had the perspective to make his feature directorial debut, keeping track of a complex story within an unforgiving 16-day shoot and making sure he was staying true to the voice of its prodigious screenwriter Kalu throughout, as well as how his respect for the audience allowed him to be bold in the storytelling.

You and Stanley are making this as your first feature, though you both bring a wealth of individual experience to it from different realms since I know his Nigerian heritage and your production knowhow were key. What was it like navigating this together?

Well, I think I’ve ruined Stanley. [laughs] Because one of the things that can happen, especially when you’re dealing with a younger writer in the feature space because it is a director’s medium and then you’ve got these producers and depending on the level of power of your actors. The writer who sat in a room and lived this material for however long it took them to come up with it can be suddenly sidelined, and that’s unfortunate because you can find people attempting to deliver their version of someone’s idea, which when you’re talking about writing and a singular perspective, it’s like you can’t do your version. You have to actually do this idea.

With Stanley, I worked with him very, very closely before we began to shoot and while we were shooting because I wanted to really concern myself in every way with the rendering of his ideas. Even when we had scenes that didn’t necessarily work as well as we wanted them to, there wasn’t a lot of improvisation. It was a lot of going to Stanley [and saying], “Hey, I need you to craft an idea from your space and give it to these characters” and allowing them to interpret, but he was [still] a really integral part of that process. We all worked really, really close together. I felt more like a conductor, trying to make all of these parts work. I had my own vision in terms of what it should look like and how it could move, but all the players had their parts and I was really concerned, specifically for him, that his voice was still very, very high in terms of how this should be rendered.

You’ve spoken before about how it was important to bring an airiness and a space and a silence to this – did those qualities come to mind immediately when thinking about it?

It’s a dense film in terms of information and I was trying to create something that would allow people to process what they’re looking at while they’re looking at and ask themselves questions and be able to answer those questions and have that supported by what they’re watching. When we were constructing these time loops, Stanley had written one thing and then it’s like now we have to figure out at what point do the experiences in these time loops converge and when do they go apart and how consistent are they in that, so it’s very engaged experience, and you can’t overwhelm when you have that level of engagement, but [also] when people attach themselves to every single moment in the film, they have like this sixth sense of when something’s not right. It’s like when your tooth is sensitive or something. There’s not a lot of pressure to get a reaction, so I really just felt it needed space to breath. We had action and movement and shifting details and you just mentally need space while you’re inside the experience to process, so that’s why it’s a little slow in terms of the way it’s rendered. The frames don’t move a lot. You have to watch the actors.

It was interesting to learn you have a background in still photography – was that something you could draw on?

I see things in still frames all the time. It’s just a way that if nothing’s happening, [I’m asking] is a frame still making me search it for information? Am I looking for something? Am I engaged even when there is stillness? And I think there can be, so that was a lot of how I approached this. I wanted stillness itself to require engagement.

When the actors are having to differentiate what they do based on whatever time loop they’re in and you’re likely not filming sequentially, is it difficult to modulate performances and keep track of where they need to be in the story?

Partially. That’s the actor’s space. The actor has to build their performance, so if we’re shooting out of sequence, they know at this point in the film I’m emotionally at this place and at this other scene we’re going to be doing in an hour, I’m six hours before that thing happened, so I have to find myself at this other place, so it’s this combination of seeing what the actors are bringing to the table in terms of where their levels are and just fine-tuning for me, like going, “Okay, let’s bring this piece down, let’s push this up. Don’t forget that this thing happened before. You either do remember it or don’t remember it. Or you have no knowledge of it.” It’s all of these very singular and particular things that you have to stay aware of and it was a major effort on my part, Stanley and all of the actors to just stay in tune to that. But it was a group effort and I wanted to empower the other creatives to explore [scenes] and then we can use what is the best thing to use, polish that up, chip away at it and make it really, really special and leave the rest behind.

I’ve actually heard one of the pivotal scenes of the movie was largely a result of giving the actors that autonomy. Was is easy to get to that place of trust?

I don’t know how 18-year-olds talk to each other. [laughs] They have their own language and an experience that is based on not being 50 years old, but the experience that they’re born into and the things they’ve been exposed to and how people talk about it and what’s important about it. All of this creatively was coming from a very, very young space, not just from Stanley, who was 19 when he wrote this, but our actors and they’re teenagers in this story, so you really have to leave the tonality of how these interactions move to them. But I do know in terms of a principle when something is right or wrong. I do know when something is emotionally vulnerable or not, when a person is being transparent or trying to obfuscate, so those are the things I was really able to give to the actors in terms of when they really chose their moments or the things that they could choose to react to because in the space of relationships, those things never change. It’s just the context of where the relationships exist, but ultimately everybody’s just looking to be loved and understood. That’s not different.

You’ve said before you saw this as a tragic love story first and foremost, which doesn’t seem like the obvious take on it, but likely a big reason this works as well as it does. Was that a guiding light to you?

Well, because it’s not a black pain story, right? It’s very easy, and I don’t doubt that a lot of the larger audience and various outlets and so on and so forth look at this — black people getting killed by the police, and it certainly comes at a particular time – and see that. But a couple of floors down at the foundation is a kid looking for love, and he’s trying to find it in an inhospitable space, but that space is not something he carries with him. It’s where he is right now. So when we start talking about the ideas of intersectionality, being able to separate out the greater social dynamics of the time and place and circumstances under which this relationship is occurring is very, very different than the relationship itself. What’s different about this than “Brokeback Mountain”? The circumstance. At the end of it, it’s still about people trying to find connection with each other and what happens when they try to do that and what’s in their way. But nobody thinks of “Brokeback Mountain” as a mountain story. [laughs] [No one thinks] “Man, they sure had a hard time on that mountain.” It’s like did you watch the whole movie?

Which brings up something interesting — as this film enters the marketplace, there’s inevitably a pressure to describe it in a limited way when it’s a number of different things. Has it been interesting throughout this whole process not to oversimplify it?

That’s just people trying to find a way to understand. And that’s anything. When people are trying to find a way to understand, they can’t grasp seven things at once. They need to grasp one thing and maybe if they can grasp one thing, then they can get to the second thing. So the bigger social dynamics [and the consideration of] police violence and this movie existing at this point in time, that becomes the easiest thing to latch onto. Then when you go on into it, you start to understand it’s a more complex and complicated space. People are not as dumb as it is alleged. [laughs] I think we collectively are quite smart, and quite in tune to all of the complexities of our experience, but the question is can we see them in others as we can see them in ourselves? That’s where the complications or the lack thereof comes in. I know I’m a complex person. Why would I think you’re far more simpler and one-note than I am? Even if it’s a movie or a song or whatever else. So [with this film], come for the racism, stay for the broken hearts.

“The Obituary of Tunde Johnson” will open in virtual cinemas on February 26th and will be available on iTunes.