After nearly two decades of making celebrated shorts, Casimir Nozkowski was ready to take on the world with his first feature, but the bigger the ideas that the writer/director had, the realization set in that the world was already at his fingertips.
“I was writing a lot of screenplays that were too hard to make – things with big budgets and aliens and don’t get me wrong, great scripts — but I think there was all of a sudden this moment of clarity where it’s like, “No, I want something where I can hang out with actors on the street and just get into characters and not really worry about logistics,” says Nozkowski. “This idea of making a film where you saw a whole spectrum of life, but it’s all happening on a block or even in a building – that idea of how small can you make the landscape, but then still make the problems and conflict and love and feelings as big as any size movie, that’s how it got started.”
Indeed, “The Outside Story” may be limited to a city block, but it tells the much larger story of Charles (Brian Tyree Henry), a New Yorker having an especially stressful day as he reels from a breakup with his longtime girlfriend Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green) and is under the gun to finish up a tribute video for TCM for a screen legend thought to be in his final days. While Charles plans to hunker down and finish his work, life has other plans when he realizes too late that among the things that Isha has left with are his house keys, forcing him into a day of meeting neighbors that he has taken great pains to avoid before in an effort to get back into his place. As he finds himself relating to others more than he could’ve imagined, there are meaningful connections he makes that are bound to unlock far more than his front door.
Although Charles is slow to warm to others from the piano prodigy who lives upstairs (Olivia Edward) to the non-nonsense beat cop (Sunita Mani) that patrols his street, Nozkowski shows enormous generosity towards everyone on screen, inviting audiences to see what full, rich lives everyone leads even when they may be reluctant to let people in. Boasting a murderer’s row of actors to fill out the ensemble around Henry, including Asia Kate Dillon, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Michael Cyril Creighton, Maria Dizzia and Hannah Bos, the film pulls off the rare feat of acting as escapism when it’s so refreshing to see people showing such goodness to one another while being particularly resonant in emerging during a pandemic when isolation has asked so many to dig a little deeper into their own surroundings.
After serving as a ray of light on the festival circuit last fall, “The Outside Story” is now having its day in the sun as it enters a wider release and keeping in character, Nozkowski was kind enough to talk about how he could satisfy his ambition to tell a story with a wide canvas on a smaller scale production, collaborating with Henry and getting the most out of an unforgiving shooting schedule.
Did the idea of making something contained lend itself immediately to the idea of a building and perhaps a guy being locked out of one?
There’s definitely also real world inspiration there. I’ve been locked out of many apartments, maybe even a car too. [laughs] And I can’t say that every time I was like, “Wow, what a beautiful experience.” [laughs] But it’s disruptive in the best way. Obviously you can’t go looking for those moments, but when you find them, you can sometimes find real perspective and clarity where you’re just like, “Oh weird, I’ve been in this routine where I haven’t actually been paying attention to the world around me. I’ve been missing these ideas that surface when you break your routine up,” so that’s how I think I got to if someone got locked out who wanted to be inside was forced to be outside, wouldn’t that be like the ultimate disruption. [Then I thought] what if I also took away his shoes and what if I gave him a cell phone that had no battery and what if I made him heartbroken? This is a guy that’s begging for disruption.
Then on the other side of it, I have always made commercials for cable channels and amongst making these commercials, I would sometimes be tasked with tweaking the in memorium videos for celebrities that hadn’t died yet. I’m an aficionado of in memoriums — I love the in memorium section at the Oscars because it makes you appreciate these actors even though it’s sad and a tragic moment — but I remember doing this job and updating like Clint Eastwood’s in memorium many years ago and [thinking], “Wow, this is the most macabre job I’ve ever seen. Wouldn’t this be the best job for the most depressed character some day?” This is before “The Outside Story” was a glimmer in my eye, but I thought that would be a really neat thing to give to Charles as a character who is unable to fix his life, to be obsessing over the lives of other people, and [particularly] to see how Brian Tyree Henry took that and show some of that obsession while at the same time be kind of oblivious to all the ways that he was keeping himself down, not appreciating or not working on himself.
Brian is such an inspired choice for this, even though I can see the connection between this and the exasperation of Paper Boi on “Atlanta.” How did he come to mind?
He was someone who was right there in the beginning. When I was writing it, I was like, “You know who would be awesome for this? Brian Tyree Henry.” I was watching an episode of “Atlanta” where he gets lost in the woods and he’s lying on his couch and the ghost of his mother comes in, and ithey don’t even really address it. It’s just this very chill moment, but the way he reacts to that and the way he played that episode, I felt like, “Could he be this character? And I feel like we were hesitant to reach out because we’re like, “Oh no, no, no. He’s too big.” And my casting director Stephanie Holbrook, bless her heart, was like, “Why not? Shoot for the stars.” It just worked out amazingly timing-wise because he was the dream, so I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that he wanted to do this part.
I understand there wasn’t much time for rehearsal, but once you had people locked in, could you adapt roles for who you were casting?
I’m certainly of the director mindset that I really want actors to lead the way with how their character works. I love when actors are thinking about their characters, like bringing background in and we’re working it out, [asking] “Would he do this? Would she do that?” And all the actors that we worked with on the set – Brian, Sonequa, Sunita, Olivia, I had so many great talks with just on motivation and they were all bringing stuff to the table. That’s critical when you’re shooting a film in 16 days. You need actors who are not looking for inspiration — they’re bringing the inspiration — and Brian, there’s so many ways he molded his character, he changed dialogue and improv-ed – he and Sunita have great improv that’s all over this film.
There’s lots of touchstones where [Brian] just changed my thinking in the best way – for instance, and this is just one, but he wears this sweater throughout the movie and I think it’s a handsome sweater, but it’s for someone who’s lying on their couch. I remember when we were doing costume, we were talking about, “Oh I’m going to want to put him in a cool jacket and have this coolness befitting him.” And he’s like, “No, I need this cardigan that’s a little too big for me,” and when you have an actor coming to you with that, [where you realize] he’s so wired in — and he’s doing it so quickly – he’s coming from one movie that’s like two days before we shoot and then we’re in and running — there’s so many things he did like that that I am forever grateful [for]. It’s so generous, and for him to extend that not only to me, but to the other actors and crew on the set, it was just lovely in every way to work with him.
I wanted to pick up on the wardrobe because one of the great things of the scene you allude to with the is you cut to the unworn Air Jordans in the corner, which says so much about who he is. When you’ve got so much of the characters’ lives you’ve got to convey in an instant when you’re walking into different apartments, what’s it like making some of those choices?
Speaking of those Nikes, I talked with Evren [Catlin, the costume designer] for a long time about those sneakers and then also going to Brian and going like, “Are these right? Would your character be excited about this?” But the whole movie is snapshots of people’s lives. There’s his apartment and his life, which you spend some time with, but then there’s other apartments where he’s just popping in and I wanted to show this whole spectrum of life, so you’ve got to have these apartments that are easy to read. For instance, like Olivia’s character Elena and her mom, played by Maria Dizzia, they live in this apartment where it’s all like Playbills and posters, so that’s a great example where Este [Braverman, the production designer] and I were working on how much background could we put on these walls. You’re only going to be with these characters for two or three minutes, so how can we imprint who they are?
That’s where you have to have communication to the highest level and again, I’m so lucky I have these various designers and production heads who are willing to get into it and talk it out. Going back to Charles’ apartment, you [also] have to show the after effects of a breakup, so we talked a lot about, “Okay, how do we show that there’s a breakup, how do we have these boxes and we have like this half unmade bed but also at the same time, how do we not slam people over the head? How do we keep it from being too broad and try to stay naturalistic?” That was a priority for everyone to have these characters be clear but still be natural and realistic, toreally feel like you are walking into these apartments and meeting these people in the way that Brian’s character Charles is.
You’ve said Isha was less of a presence in earlier drafts and became more prominent throughout the writing process – did characters start emerging throughout this?
That’s always the dilemma. When you’re working on the script, you’re working in this vacuum where ideas are more attractive than the day-to-day experience and with Isha, at one point, there was an idea of let’s not meet her at all until the very last second when she shows up with these keys, so she’s this looming presence [in the film]. That makes her more mythical and at least in the script stage, that seemed really appealing. But then when you have an actor like Sonequa Martin-Green, I dare any director to not flip the other way and say, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get as much as possible from her because she’s so incredible.” Sonequa shot all of her scenes in three days on her Thanksgiving break. She’s the lead of this little show called “Star Trek: Discovery,” and she flew in on her Thanksgiving break, did all of her scenes — her last big scene, the party, this kind of intimate scene before [her] plane’s leaving in 45 minutes — and I only say all that as a testament to what a great work ethic she had and her ability to be calm like that, and bring so much background, and I almost wish I had written more for her.
I really feel like we used every possible second we had with her in the cut because she’s such a charming presence, it just demands that you watch her and that’s a great example of where I want the actors to almost pull me in the direction, so I’m not going to be somebody who’s like, “In the script, I’m sorry…we don’t meet you until the very end.” I want it to be like, “Oh my God, I’m working with Sonequa Martin-Green. Alright, how can we showcase her?” It’s just so important to let her unwind and show all of her version of this character. That’s more important than my version as a screenwriter.
With the schedule with actors coming in and going out, I imagine you were shooting individual arcs for characters on any given day. Was it like being in a different world every day?
There were definitely some characters that we were able to shoot out all their scenes in a chronological or almost chronological way in one day. Asia Kate Dillon came in from shooting “Billions,” and they were only available for one Saturday, so we’re making everything work so that we can shoot them in that one perfect day and then they’re done, but for the most part, this is where I really have to give huge shoutouts to my producers – to Frank Hall Green, Brian Newman, Joseph Stephens, but also my AD Laura Klein because the schedule juggling is bananas, especially when you mix in winter weather – blizzards that are happening and then disappearing and rain coming. I’m amazed we didn’t have a crisis develop with scheduling.
You couldn’t tell at all this had to deal with those kind of weather conditions.
It was written to be a summer movie, but everyone had schedule concerns. Brian, as you can tell — I think he shot our film two days after “Child’s Play,” the reboot, and two days after our film wraps, he’s shooting “Godzilla Versus Kong” back in Hawaii, so it’s a testament to the actors being able to have the presence with no breaks, but that was the window. So we were like, “Okay, mid-November. This is now a fall movie and it’s worth it.” That’s the fun part of film – when it’s not giving you a heart attack, it’s exciting to know the absolutes. How can I modulate the script, the production and the experience to make that work with the absolute that’s been created by the actor or whatever thing that’s landed there and gotten in the way? In this case, it was beneficial because autumn in New York is absolutely beautiful. The only downside was the occasional blizzard, but we dodged some incredible weather bullets and I don’t know how, but there’s this one blizzard in the middle where there’s six inches of snow on the ground and it somehow on our off-day completely melted away, so the next day, we were in the park shooting that Asia Kate Dillon scene. If you zero in close, you can see snow way in the background, but it’s basically all gone, so it was amazing, amazing luck there.
The movie gods knew you were doing something good here.
I tried. I tried not to anger them.
I’ve gotten the sense that a feature may have become a little intimidating as a prospect over the years when you’re making all those shorts. What’s it like to have one under your belt now?
It feels amazing. Because of the nature of indie filmmaking, it’s actually hard to stop and enjoy it, but I could not value that experience more. I could not feel more grateful to have had that experience and again, to have had it work to the extent that the film is coming out, the film exists. It is there, it is coherent. It actually happened. But it’s funny with indie film, you’ve got to do so much. It’s a good thing. You just constantly have to be on your toes, constantly be working all the angles. We’re a low budget film, so now we are working every angle to get the awareness out there to spread the word and that’s something I want to be a part of, but I feel like somewhere on the horizon, there’s this moment where I’ll burst into tears. It might happen right now. [laughs] I’ll just burst into tears with this real awareness that this event took place. Oh my gosh. I shot my first feature, this dream I had since I was 13 years old, and honestly, the only thing I’ve wanted to do – direct films and I got to direct one I wrote. I got to work with these incredible actors. Does it get any better than that? I do look forward to doing it again, just because you want to get better at something and want to be like, okay, what did I learn from the first one? But I’m so proud of the team and the people and just the whole kit and caboodle of this production. I just feel so lucky that I got to be a part of it. It’s unbelievable.