BlackStar Film Fest 2021 Interview: Jahmil Eady on Living in the Moment in “Heartland”

Jahmil Eady couldn’t help but laugh a little thinking back to the moment on the set of her first film “Heartland” that made her cry. It was the film’s final scene and co-stars Maxine Goynes and Haskell Anderson III looked exactly like the characters that the writer/director had in her head as they embraced, so convincing as a woman and the grandfather she was about to lose to cancer that it moved the entire crew to tears. However, the very act of filming might’ve tipped her hand as to where she came down the provocative question at the heart of the film, when Goynes’ Jackie has trouble putting away her camera in an effort to keep his memory alive, neglecting how he’s trying to connect with her in his final days.

“When the film is really all about staying present or not, it’s a really funny meta moment on set because I need the two of them to stay in that moment [but] I’m recording them and I’m like ‘Stay present, stay present! Connect, connect!’ Eady recalls.

Somehow Eady beautifully balances both instincts, made all the more impressive when showing how difficult it is for Jackie, who believes she’s secured a kind of immortality for her grandfather Lance when signing up for Heartland, a form of preservative virtual reality that she can keep with her by recording footage of him while he’s alive. What gives comfort to Jackie, however, leads to great discontent for Lance, who would rather not have his granddaughter fiddling around with the supposedly unobtrusive orb that she’s set up to chronicle their time together or worrying that she might’ve missed a moment when he doesn’t know how many he’ll have left. Not only does “Heartland” tenderly convey a dilemma that many face upon parting ways with a loved one, debating how potentially selfish it is to use what time there is left to document as much as they can when the person right in front of them simply wants them to be there in the moment, but it shows Eady’s impressive world building skills as it takes place in a near-future that’s full of subtle advancements, not losing sight of the human touch that Lance fears his granddaughter might be robbed of.

On the eve of the film’s debut at the BlackStar Film Festival following its recent bow at the Indy Shorts Film Festival where it won the Audience Choice Award, Eady took the time to talk about how she was able to make such a lovely tribute to her own relatives that have passed with “Heartland” and how she was able to pull together such an intimate production on short notice, as well as challenging herself to tell personal stories and realizing the future she hopes will come to pass.

How did this come about?

I’m currently a student at UCLA, but this was in March before I heard if I had gotten in and I was visiting my grandfather who had lung cancer at a place called Heartland Hospice Center down in South Carolina in Charleston. I had an interview with UCLA and I would have to pitch an idea [for a film] during my interview, and I was at the center and it was his final days. He couldn’t really speak anymore and I just really remember sitting across the room from him and just watching him and playing some Lou Rawls, which is some music he would play in his Cadillac when we were driving around the town. I was just really upset and worried about him and I remembered this previous time I had gone down to South Carolina with my camera. I was trying to record everything, all of our last moments, and I was trying to ask him all these questions about his past. He was very much so a 1940s kind of man. He didn’t want to talk about his feelings and was very weirded out by the fact that I had my camera with me every single time I went down. One day we were in the country and he snapped at me, “What’s up with you and that machine? Put that damn thing away!” [laughs]

I just laughed and I [thought], “He’s just a grouchy old man” and for a second, I just felt lighter, remembering what a crotchety guy my grandpa was about me being obsessed with my camera, so I just started writing there in the hospice room. I left the hospice center and flew back to New York for my interview and the morning of my interview, my mom called me to say that my grandfather had passed away. I had sort of known already – I had woken up at three a.m. out of nowhere, and a few hours later, I was pitching [this story]. Then when we went back down to Charleston for his funeral, I was in the house with my mom, just packing up his home when I got the call I got in [to UCLA]. Then right about six months before I was due to start school, my uncle passed away from lung cancer, the very same thing my grandfather passed away from, so the first thing I wanted to do when I got to school was deal with these emotions, but also make something that honors the two of them because I definitely felt like they were watching over me. That’s also one of the better parts of being a filmmaker or the person who works with words or with image or with music, it’s something that we do to connect with one another and share the burdens that we face as humans, all of us. So that was just my way of doing it.

This has such a brilliant idea at the center of it with the idea of preserving a memory to be able to hold onto it for yourself versus living in the moment with the person who wants you to be there with them. Did it automatically lend itself to something slightly futuristic?

I’ve always loved science fiction and speculative fiction and fantasy and when I started school, I thought I would make Afrofuturist films [because] I want black people to not just be in the future, but thrive in the future. But what happened is once I got to school and started writing, it’s not about the genre, it’s about telling the stories that you want to tell. My next film is just a drama that’s not a genre film, and the characters are black, but that’s not a major part of the story. The most important part of the story is the sheer humanistic aspect of it and I want to make more films like that where race isn’t the focal point of the story because I think [in] our lives as marginalized people often that identity becomes everything, so I think the way we break down that issue is by creating stories where it’s just like, “Oh yeah…” That’s why I love Peter Dinklage. [laughs] All of his characters have literally nothing to do with the fact his identity is as a little person. He’s just Peter Dinklage, a badass, and that is that. I love that.

And [during] those last few months with my grandpa and my uncle, [it was] very much, “Let’s schedule this thing” or “Let’s have this dinner” or “Let’s record this.” We always want to immortalize our lives and the lives of our loved ones in important moments and in the film, they have a generational divide [where] they disagree on the best way to do that, but at the core of it all, we all want to connect and we all want to cherish moments. It’s just finding a balance between the technology and the real presence and staying focused. Memory is fallible, so that’s a whole thing too.

You’ve got a great pair of leads. How did you cast them?

I can’t imagine this film without Maxine and Haskell together, but it’s a funny story because my initial actress for Jackie actually got hired to do a national commercial that was filming the exact time as mine, so she’s like “I’m sorry, I have to do it” and “I was like girl, I get your coins!” [laughs] But it was three days before I was due to begin filming, so I reached out to the UCLA community and Maxine Goyns was recommended to me. I immediately felt connected to her because her father had died maybe a few months before that, so she was also very attached to the themes of the film and I had her read with Haskell, who I already cast, and immediately, I felt they had a natural chemistry. Haskell is such a well of joy and just a gentleman, and I love that collaborative nature of filmmaking with directors and actors [where] we came together on set and we didn’t have a lot of time, but in between shot set-ups and scenes, we would spend time doing these exercises where we would build out character background or shared experiences where I would just let them improv.

With only one day to learn her lines, Maxine did an outstanding job, and I think [the improv] really helped them build this chemistry, keeping them together on set and talking about experiences that they shared. Those are the things I think naturally bond people and they were both very vulnerable and generous, and I think it just shows up on screen in a really powerful way.

Was there anything that happened you weren’t expecting but you now really like about it?

I really loved the location for the hospice center, [which is] actually the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant and it’s attached to the Japanese Garden [in Los Angeles]. It’s a location I always loved because it’s Starfleet Command in the “Star Trek” series and it’s perfectly futuristic looking, but also a really warm, gorgeous, peaceful space that I wanted Lance’s world to [feel like] versus Jackie’s world, which I wanted to feel cold and constructed. When I went to see if I could get that location, they said, “Yeah, you can film here. You can film here for free and you can film here on Saturday because it’s closed on Saturdays,” I was just like… [mind blown] I [thought,] “Thank you Grandpa, thank you Uncle.” And it’s like I get to have this sci-fi easter egg in there.

It’s full of those little touches where you can really get a sense of this larger world – this may be a compliment more than a question, but I loved the shot with the orb when they’re dancing that’s not exactly a POV shot, but it’s made to feel like the technology is influencing what’s being captured in the moment – was it interesting to figure out how to shoot that?

I just wanted that moment to feel different from all the other moments. I wanted it to be handheld, but also other than the ending, that’s the closest that Jackie gets to being in the moment. At some point [in every other scene], she pops right out of it when the camera stops working, so I wanted it to feel close and intimate and the way I could get in there was following their feet and their hands, so that’s where that came from.

It was interesting to read you had a background in producing documentaries. Was it always a plan to make narrative work?

I’ve always loved storytelling, whether it was through books or [films] and I went into doc because I always loved the humanistic element. It’s very human-focused, it’s about change and shedding light on issues and communities that are not usually placed in the spotlight. Working in doc as an associate producer or working in unscripted as a casting associate, I loved that, but along the way, I realized I don’t need to be in doc to be able to do that I thought I could bring in those same elements but challenge myself to write those stories myself. For instance, my next film “The Bond” is about a woman who’s incarcerated and pregnant — very different from this film, but it’s based on the story of my birth, and it took a while for me to get to a point where I was ready to tell this story and could be completely vulnerable because for a long time I was embarrassed by it. But [when] my goal was to shed light on [certain] stories or help people, I thought I have to take the first step.

What’s it like getting this film out into the world?

It’s so exciting. I just finished at IndyShorts International Film Festival, and BlackStar is the first one I can attend, so it’s going to be my first ever in-person film festival and I’m super thrilled and honored. It’s my first film, so it’s very affirming.

“Heartland” will screen at the BlackStar Film Festival on August 4th at 2 pm EST as part of the Shorts: Symbiosis program, available to screen virtually anywhere.