As “From Nowhere” opens, the environment will be familiar as you enter a classroom at a New York high school where an English teacher (Julianne Nicholson) attempts to ease her students into a discussion of “King Lear,” only there’s a slight sense of disorientation as the camera bobs and weaves about the room, eventually settling on the thoughtful yet mildly timid Moussa (J. Mallory McCree) as he describes Edgar, the heir to the Duke of Gloucester, by way of the Oscar Wilde quote, “Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” Risking the wrath of others around him by actually looking interested in his studies, the moment is unsettling since you don’t quite know where your concern should lie, only that there is far more going on than what appears at first.
“It always felt like I was playing catch up every single day of my life in high school, so I thought from the first moment it might be helpful [for the audience] to lean forward a little bit,” says the film’s co-writer/director Matthew Newton, who nonetheless has created one of the most insightful and humane looks at the daily reality for families of illegal immigrants living in the United States that has been committed to film.
While that may threaten to sound as dull as a lesson about Shakespeare may be to Moussa’s classmates, “From Nowhere” comes alive in Newton’s vivid portrait of three teens dealing with the typical anxiety that comes around the time when they start to contemplate what comes after high school, only in their case it’s more pronounced as they each attempt to resolve their immigration status before graduating. As the first generation in their families to spend the majority of their lives in America, neither Moussa, Sophie (Octavia Chavez-Richmond) or Alyssa (Raquel Castro) have any connection to the country they could be deported back to, seeking the counsel of an immigration attorney (Denis O’Hare) to secure their citizenship. Even without that decision looming, the trio are always just one identification check away from having the lives they’ve built upended by circumstances they had no involvement in creating, and while staying in the present tense, Newton and co-writer Kate Ballen meticulously illustrate how no matter how much they’ve become a part of society, often as a result of sacrifices that no one should have to make, they remain on the outside looking in.
An emigre himself from Australia (albeit a legal one) and an actor-turned-director, Newton is ideally suited to craft such a considerate and compelling drama, getting beautifully nuanced performances from his young cast and reframing the ongoing conversation around immigration around human concerns rather than political ones. Nearly a year after winning the Audience Award at SXSW where it premiered, the film is finally hitting theaters after a successful festival run and just before its release, Newton spoke about all the work that goes into making a film that doesn’t look like one, adapting it from the stage to the screen and having the film come out at a time when the conversation around immigration has reached a fever pitch.
At SXSW, you had mentioned you first directed this as a play. Was it natural to adapt to the screen?
I directed a play at the New York Fringe Festival called “No One Asked Me,” written by Kate Ballen, who is my co-screenwriter on the movie, and the play was the very, very bare bones of what the film eventually became. It was basically about three undocumented kids and doing an encore presentation, which we were asked to do, I watched it in that second iteration and realized that there’s a great film here. A lot of stuff in the play was about the problem of immigration, so [for the film] we invented their lives – we went home with them and we took the idea of the three kids and their dilemma and wrote a world for them to live in.
Were each of the three scenarios for the kids the same from the start? They complement each other in such a way as to create a full portrait of the struggle the children of immigrants have.
No, all that stuff was developed for the film. Sophie was the first idea that I had for the film and the idea of that baton change between Sophie and Moussa, where Moussa begins the film as the earnest [student], sitting forward, on the balls of his feet, taking notes, and Sophie is this wounded, damaged young woman who needs help but doesn’t let anyone near her, and the idea of those two characters going through very different journeys and coming out at different places at the end. I thought that was a great place to start – Sophie [being like this] wounded animal – I have cats and it’s like when [you sense] they need your help, but you don’t understand why what’s happening is happening and you can’t get near them – and from there, the other two stories developed and we tried to keep those three plates spinning as we wrote the script.
How did you find your three leads for this?
A fabulous New York casting director named Judy Henderson. She brought in hundreds of young actors, some younger than others and I worked with a lot of them. I tend to call back a lot of actors because I started as an actor, so I feel like you never know when you’re going to uncover that little clue that’s going to tell you that there’s something here that can work in that character. It was a pretty extensive audition process and I try to make the audition feel as much like a day on the set [where] I give [the actors] a little direction and hear what they want to do and try to have as much as I can a little snapshot of what it’s going to be like making a project with this actor.
Octavia, who plays Sophie, was in the play, so I knew I wanted [her to reprise the role] and then as soon as I found J. Mallory, I knew the two of them would work so well together, so I started looking for Alyssa. Raquel actually came in very late in the process, only a couple weeks before we started shooting but as soon as she came in, I loved her for Alyssa, so I was very lucky. They’re three wonderful actors and really lovely people.
You’ve said that casting is rewriting for you, so did this change much after they were set?
Absolutely. Even without touching the script, I always think of casting as the next draft anyway just because of those personalities being implanted onto the work and what that will do and the energy that gives it. I tell my stories through the actors, so I love using things that come out [during the audition process] and I did a rewrite after I cast the movie completely based on things that happened in conversations that we’d had and then on the set, I really believe in the moment-to-moment reality of the shoot, so if something happens in a scene, I always want that to be dealt with and treated as real life. There’s moments of improvisation for each of the scenes, but there are also scenes that are completely improvised that didn’t exist when we arrived on set that morning. For instance, a lot of the classroom stuff is improvised and I find that to be another form of rewriting, also in collaboration with the actors. Often they’re unaware of their importance in the collaboration. [laughs] But nonetheless, it’s completely inspired by this little organic team of people that I find myself privileged to be working with.
The camerawork in the film has that vibrancy to it as well, though obviously to capture what you do, it can’t be as much on the fly. How did you figure that style out?
I want all of the work to be invisible, and what I said to all of the heads of departments was I want it to be like we were never here. So we used two cameras and Jay [Keitel]’s a wonderful cinematographer and we had a great B camera operator, Michael Wilson. Michael and Jay operate themselves, always on the shoulder, and it’s very much a dance, working organically with the actors in the scene. Sometimes I’m behind Jay, guiding with my hand on his back. I don’t put marks down. If I can, I make the spaces as workable as possible for the actors, so it feels as little like making a film as possible.
You had plenty of other experiences in between as an actor, but having directed a feature before, was the second time around any different?
It was by the nature of the fact that I wasn’t [acting] in it. I was in “Three Blind Mice,” and not being in this made the process slightly different because it allowed me to step back and be there for all of the actors. I also had a lot of time between the films and I think I probably did feel a little bit more at ease, or as at ease as you ever do in making a film. [laughs] Because there’s always a sense of what’s going to happen today?
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
The last day of filming was a particularly crazy day. It was the coldest night in several years in New York and it was the night with the cops on the street stopping all the kids and checking all their IDs. It was freezing – I cannot tell you how cold it was out there for my actors – and I also wasn’t dressed appropriately, particularly my footwear – I think I was wearing my boots and I ran towards [the actors] at one point to give a direction so enthusiastically that I slipped and did like a cartoon landing on my back on the ice. It was pretty chaotic. We had to get in and out as fast as possible. But I try to keep it as easy as possible and to feel as easy as possible, so it doesn’t feel rushed. That was crazy because of the elements, but the classroom stuff, whenever you’ve got a big group of young people, I love creating that kind of chaos and then filming it. Being in a real school with real classrooms and the texture [of that] – I love the found objects and having so much real life imprinted on the walls, it’s wonderful then to put the characters inside that environment and have them live.
Not that this film wouldn’t have been relevant whenever it was released, but coming now given all the renewed attention being paid to immigration just in the last few weeks, has the meaning of the film changed for you since finishing it last year?
The meaning of the film hasn’t, but the urgency [has]. It felt like a very acute problem to me already. I met a lot of undocumented and formerly undocumented people, so I felt invited into their world and it’s always important to the people going through the situation, but it just feels like there’s an urgency to the situation now in this country, so it hasn’t changed the feeling of the story and the issue, as much as I hate that word — I understand why it’s used, but I hate hearing it out of my own voice because it’s so much more than that. It’s a real flesh-and-blood problem that people are facing right now. This film doesn’t talk about policy and what should and shouldn’t happen, but I wanted to put a human face on the policies, and I hope that by having living and breathing people going through these dilemmas in the film, it can show people that there are actual human beings that get affected by these decisions.