Curtiss Cook Jr. and Kerwin Johnson Jr. in "Naz and Maalik"

SXSW ’15 Interview: Jay Dockendorf, Curtiss Cook Jr. and Kerwin Johnson Jr. on Crossing Paths with “Naz & Maalik”

On the first day of shooting “Naz and Maalik,” the cast and crew arrived in Brooklyn to an apartment where they had gotten the permission of its tenant to shoot there. Then six hours into the shoot, the landlord showed up.

“We only [got] half of what we really needed, so we had to shoot the rest somewhere else,” recalls writer/director Jay Dockendorf. “We had to rush the whole process. [The landlord] had no idea what the movie was about. He was just raving mad and went nuts on our location manager. We had a lot of craziness.”

Fittingly, what footage there was from that day made it into the opening scene of “Naz and Maalik” and the craziness only multiplies during the day-long adventure the titular Muslim teens spend together. Yet that’s not all that the playful pair, played by Curtiss Cook Jr. and Kerwin Johnson Jr., share, both Muslims with a secret bond that goes against the tenets of their religion, which has not only made it impossible to be themselves at home but has placed them on a government watch list. Hence the 24 hours for the duo that involves hustling lotto tickets on the street, FBI surveillance, and runaway roosters.

It’s an auspicious feature debut for Dockendorf, who not only offers a romantic stroll through Brooklyn with all its eccentricities, but crafts a compelling relationship drama between Naz and Maalik, whose familiarity with each other as lifelong friends actually begins to pose obstacles once they start to develop different feelings for each other throughout the day. The filmmaker finds worlds within the world we all live in, dipping in and out of Islamic bodegas and homes that may reside in New York but feel as if they’re portals to another place while he trains the lens on characters who may seem like they’re the only people on Earth to one another when they’re in each other’s company, as much as the rest of the world would like to intrude.

After the film’s premiere at SXSW, en route to the Nashville Film Festival this week, Dockendorf, Cook Jr. and Johnson Jr. spoke about the wild production that made the city their personal playground, how the actors had the time to forge a friendship that feels like it’s lasted forever and naturally, how an apartment helped inspire the director to tell this story.

How did this come about?

Jay Dockendorf: I sublet a room from a closeted Muslim guy in Bed-Stuy and lived there for a month. He told me about his life — he wasn’t closeted to me, but was to his family – and hearing about it really moved me. I asked if I could base a film on his story and he agreed, so I interviewed him and that turned into the story that “Naz and Maalik” is loosely based on. He wasn’t a teenager, so I drew on my own experiences as a teenager, kind of sneaking around, worrying about getting in trouble with the police.

What was it like to immerse yourself in this world? I imagine it was foreign territory for most of the cast and crew.

Curtiss Cook Jr.: It definitely is foreign, but at the same time it’s not totally unfamiliar because the cast and the crew is from the city — I’m from Yonkers, [Kerwin]’s from Queens, and we definitely venture out into Brooklyn, so it wasn’t totally out there. It actually was fun being able to do this, to be sensitive about the topics [in the film], but at the same time, let go and know that we’re just being kids in the city like we regularly are as teenagers doing the same things [as Naz and Maalik], trying to duck cops and to not get in trouble, figuring out how to make money to support ourselves and our families, so it actually was a very pleasurable experience.

Jay Dockendorf: We also tried to explore as much as we possibly could about the Muslim faith and the experience of going to mosques, praying, and what a typical sermon is like by an imam. The person [in the film] who gave the sermon was an imam in his previous career before he became an actor and having those resources — reaching out to my close friends who are Muslim and getting their input on the whole thing — was really important and interesting and helped bridge the gap. We knew that there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it and we didn’t want to transgress on something sacred for someone else. At the same time, we were going to tell this story, which is loosely inspired by real people, so we were really interested in getting it right.

Kerwin Johnson Jr.: [The reason I was interested in making the film] was the ability step into another world. The learning experience was definitely was something that intrigued me and was different from what I had done previously, so to try it and get out there and challenge myself was really the icing on the cake.

Curtiss Cook Jr.: For me, this role is this is the epitome of what being an actor is in terms of [being] here to mirror life for you to gain something out from it, yet enjoy yourself and feel like you can remove yourself from something or maybe you can put yourself even more into something because I know that movies and music have done that for me. This role came up and I definitely went back and forth [on whether to do it], but essentially, it was just like, “You know what? You are an actor” and like Kerwin said, being in a role that helps you stretch and do something that might be worth something to someone, go on and do it, man, have fun. You’re young.

This is such an interesting relationship between the two of you in the film because you play these two friends that have known each other for quite some time, so they’ve got that playful familiarity with each other, but at the same time their feelings towards each other are changing, so it has to feel like something completely new. Was that difficult to find?

Kerwin Johnson Jr.: This guy makes it easy to love him and hate him. [laughs] That’s just regularly. He didn’t have to act that! But the three of us had went out many times and discussed different things and really built that relationship. Working with Curtiss really helped. It was easy to go there and do different things.

Curtiss Cook Jr.: I will give credit to Jay because he wanted to rehearse his movie like a play. He wanted to get into the rehearsals right away for about two or three weeks and really try to get inside this script and our characters, and make this as authentic as possible. With a guy like Kerwin, he’s a really cool cat. He’s real chill, easy to get along with and goes with the flow of stuff, so if you’ve got someone like that, you’re a hundred steps above everybody else, so I was pretty lucky as well.

Kerwin Johnson Jr.: That’s true. He was lucky.

It looked like the scenes in the street where the two of you were selling lotto tickets to passerby wasn’t staged. What was that like?

Kerwin Johnson Jr.: My goodness, it wasn’t scripted, but it was actually a lot of fun. At first, you’re intimidated because you’re going up to strangers and you’re like, “Ah, you know, I don’t know.” Doing that is a little crazy as well — and I like to act a little crazy every once in a while – but once you do it and continue doing it, just the response of the people really gives you that energy to continue. To see the looks on their face, it’s just so much fun.

Jay Dockendorf: I think that we were doing that when we weren’t even rolling. We were still rehearsing. I didn’t even rehearse with you guys going up the street and trying to sell [people] things, because it wasn’t like we needed to watch them on camera and waste valuable time with the whole crew, seeing them go with the motions of getting comfortable. But by the time we got all the way into it, I was worried you would be doing it when we weren’t even looking!

Kerwin Johnson Jr.: That would have been an idea.

Curtiss Cook Jr.: “Come on, come on. Let’s do it. I gave you your money back.” I sold candy in school, so his script was very relatable to me.

You’ll also shoot from afar to give the film a feeling of surveillance because of the FBI subplot. It occurred to me that shooting from afar must require a really complicated set up since you aren’t right there to tell the actors to start and stop, so was that something difficult to figure out?

Jay Dockendorf: There were certain times where we tried to emulate traditional forms of surveillance and we rented a great, big 20 to 200 millimeter zoom lens, which I think is the kind of lens that they used for “The Conversation” and [gives the feel of] that ‘70s slow zoom in on them. Those scenes are hard to queue from really far away and we had to have one of our producers [near the actors] with a walkie-talkie and [the characters are] usually walking enormous distances, like that bridge they walk over at the beginning of the movie, so those [days] were interesting, but not all of the shots were difficult. A lot of them were just shot documentary style and we would roll longer than the sound mixer was accustomed to. We definitely broke some rules making this movie. We didn’t know a lot of rules, but we hope they were non-fatal errors as we learned the process.

Curtiss Cook Jr.: I’m still alive, man.

Jay Dockendorf: We were safe.

Kerwin Johnson Jr.: [looking at Cook Jr.] This guy’s accident prone. [laughs]

Jay Dockendorf: Says the guy who just dropped his cell phone into a grate here in Austin.

Other than that, how’s your trip to SXSW been?

Kerwin Johnson Jr.: For me, it’s been a great experience. This is my first time in Texas, first time in the Southwest. It’s a lot of firsts for me, so I’m just trying to absorb everything, but it has been a lot of fun.

Jay Dockendorf: Yeah, it felt like this was the first time I actually saw the film. I’ve probably seen 200 different versions of it, if I really think about it. Every time we made a Vimeo [copy], the editor of the colors made me go watch and make sure the link worked all the way through, but it wasn’t even close to the same experience as it was seeing it finished. Sitting in a theater, the movie makes the most sense in a dark room with a bigger screen because the characters are kind of heroic. We tried to shoot this movie with close-ups, and extreme close-ups sometimes to really get in their face because if you’ve ever seen movies like “Silence of the Lambs” or “Black Narcissus,” which are big influences for me, they feature a lot of really nice close-ups that don’t make as much sense on small screens. You see them, but you’re not awed by the power of that person’s facial expressions and that person’s emotions the way you are when you get it on a screen bigger than a wall, so I hope as many people can see this on as big a screen as possible.

“Naz & Maalik” opens in New York on January 22nd at Cinema Village. It will be available on VOD on January 26th.

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