Chicago Film Fest 2023 Interview: Minhal Baig on the Homecoming of “We Grown Now”

It would be worth sticking around during the end credits of “We Grown Now” if for no other reason that to be swept up in Jay Wadley’s stirring score, but there are other ways in which it was deeply moving as the Special Thanks section rolled around for Minhal Baig’s third feature and you can see a who’s who of filmmakers from her hometown of Chicago that somehow lent a hand. Even if I had an endless amount of time talking to Baig after the premiere of the coming-of-age drama at the Toronto Film Fest, I suspect she wouldn’t be able to quantify the contributions of every local filmmaker listed such as Austin Vesely (“Slice”) and Assia Boundaoui (“The Feeling of Being Watched”), but then again the power of community is expressed so vividly in her latest film that to put it into words isn’t necessary.

Baig appears relaxed in a way she didn’t when I last spoke with her in Toronto about her breakthrough film “Hala,” having reason to be cautious when a stranger was asking about the personal story of growing apart from her conservative Pakistani parents as a teen, but perhaps equally so when she endured the slings and arrows of being an outspoken presence on social media where she’d been quite candid about her unpleasant experience in writers rooms and industry structures that remain in place in spite of the reforms promised after there’s been more exposure of racism and sexism in recent years. She not only pulled herself away from online discourse – though she’s gradually waded back in during the writers’ strike – but from Hollywood to move back home to the Windy City in the wake of her father’s death and could make a film outside the system and engage with it on her own terms.

The result is truly magical, celebrating the promise of what a neighborhood can be when seeing it through the perspective of two 11-year-old boys who can be content within the walls of the only home they’ve ever known in Cabrini-Green Public Housing when their parents make sure that they know they’re loved and never let them see them sweat in spite of punishing jobs that prevent them from being together as much as they’d like. However, Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez) grow conscious of the fact it may not last forever as other families start moving out of the buildings where a predominantly Black community built lives for themselves in the 1960s and ‘70s on once-undesirable property that now holds appeal to developers and the shooting death of seven-year-old Dantrell Davis in the fall of 1992, when the film is set, brings unwanted surveillance from the police who use the tragedy to bully the residents further.

After digging deep into herself to make “Hala,” Baig conducted just as much a deep dive interrogation into the history of Cabrini-Green to set a story there, learning of a mass migration from the segregated South up to the North where it may have been a constant struggle to find financial prosperity for the Black community but strength was plentiful in places like Cabrini-Green where neighbors felt they could lean on each other. The feeling that even as the buildings empty, lives could be full, thanks to the those who refused to let the next generation believe their future couldn’t be better, is richly conveyed not only in the beautiful performances from the adults in Eric and Malik’s lives, played by S. Epatha Merkerson, Jurnee Smollett and Lil Rel Howrey, but all Baig is able to evoke throughout “We Grown Now” with the cinematic tools available to her, whether it’s Leslie Schatz’s extraordinary sound design where one can always hear the echoes of what’s happening down the hall or the playful, rough-and-tumble camerawork of cinematographer Pat Scola that brings out the beauty in how the families have rolled with the punches.

With the film poised to have a hometown premiere for the ages at the Chicago Film Festival, Baig spoke about how “We Grown Now” came together, not letting a single period detail go overlooked when building sets according to the original floor plans of Cabrini-Green and unlocking the story from the time it’s set in to speak to both a situation and people that endure.

What was it like breaking the story for this?

It was really different. It was such a journalistic process. I went into it trying not to impose any kind of story that I was thought should be told or what I was expecting. I had definitely had preconceived ideas maybe based on the research I’d done prior to doing my interviews, but once I was doing interviews with former residents, it was really a responsive process. One interview would lead to another, talking to one person and then they would be like, “Talk to my mom or my grandma or to my cousin.” And people were very generous. I never experienced any hostility about why I was asking them questions. They were mostly curious like why I was interested about what their life was like growing up in Cabrini-Green, and I was surprised at what I found because so much of their stories were about the mundane – the joys, the pains, but also just their everyday lives. And I was really interested in those things, like what music you were listening to, what clothes you were wearing, and what was your life like at this time?

Out of that then came the focus of telling the story from the perspective of children because they have this really unique way of looking at the high rises because it was also the only place they knew as home. They see the world is full of wonder and joy. Then around 10 and 11 is where they’re starting to transition into learning more about the external forces in their neighborhood and in their lives. I started in 2018, and then we didn’t film until 2022, so it was ongoing and didn’t really stop even in the scriptwriting stage. We continued to really engage with the interviews and also consult the research as we did the the production design and costume design, etc.

You mentioned at the premiere involving Cabrini-Green residents in the production. How could you incorporate them?

There’s so many people and they were all in the things. There are folks who are the consultants on the movie, but out of the interviews, Dantrell Davis’ name kept coming up and he was shot and killed in Cabrini-Green as he was walking to school in 1992. It was a very tragic event that shaped the neighborhood and changed the future of the projects, and I knew his mom, Annette Freeman, continued to live in Chicago, so I sought her out and we spoke several times. We went to Cabrini-Green, [which] right now is empty lots with mixed income housing, and [Annette] really generously lent her time and became the tour guide for this place. And then MC Tree G, Tremaine Johnson, is a rapper and he was really young when Dantrell was killed, but he was the one who was telling me about his perspective of what was going on in the world at the time, so there were these two really unique voices that were so much a part of shaping the story in the film.

I’ve never asked a question about sound design so early in an interview, but you take the idea of hearing all the voices in a community to another level with this. What was it like to figure out how to mix?

We had this tall task of creating a high rise, and there was first the challenge of creating it in the production design and building the set, but it was also in post-production because we don’t have thousands of people as extras, so we really had to recreate what it was like for this place to feel so full because all these apartments are right next to each other and they’re in the breezeway, so it’s also open to the city in this huge building. So I just really wanted every scene and shot to really ground it in that experience. My editor Stephanie Filo started out in documentary and I think that really informs the way that she works. She has an incredible eye for stitching things together and making scenes out of moments, but also with sound design, because sound design is so important in doc. She would have 47 tracks of background sounds – like a woman talking, two people talking on the stairs, a car passing by. And I wanted really specific sounds and she would just layer them. It was really important because it needed to feel like a place because when you’re filming on a stage, it’s really quiet, which is great for production sound, but it makes it challenging in post to just ground it and make it really feel real. Then we had an amazing sound designer and he would change things to feel like “okay, for moving from one floor to another, we’re going to have the boomboxes louder here, and then it becomes less loud here.” He did that all over the film.

How did you find these two amazing child actors for your leads?

It was a long process that was made more challenging because of the COVID. We were getting tapes submitted by kids and I worked with casting director Aisha Coley and Claire Simon, the locals casting director, looking for kids who had the emotional maturity to carry a movie because they’re basically in every scene – kids who were not only the characters but mature enough to carry a production. And Blake [Cameron Mitchell] had all these leadership qualities and incredible charisma, and Gian [Knight Ramirez] was from Chicago. He very much felt like a kid just that could have been found in Cabrini-Green, and both of them together were the perfect complement [with] Malik being the dreamer and Eric much more practical. Together, I believed these two kids are friends and there was a long audition process, chemistry reads, and then the rehearsal process as well ahead of production.

Was there anything that happened in that time that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Yeah, the kids really took ownership of their characters. Even though they were 10 and 11 by the time we started production, they were very knowledgeable about the history of the high rises of Cabrini-Green in Chicago and they knew about Dantrell. They were very, they very much understood that their characters are in that world and when we were acting out scenes, they would ask questions about like, what would Malik be doing in this environment? And in the process of rehearsing with them, we would make sure that they put on the coat of the characters at the beginning of the scene, and then take off the coat of the characters at the end, so I would ask them, “Who are you?” And they would say, “I am Malik.” And then at the end of the scene I’m like, “Who are you?” And he would say, “I’m Blake.” And that was important because I wanted them to be able to separate themselves from the characters when they went home. Because they’re children and I don’t want them to internalize some of the heavy subject matter and what I feel are traumatic experiences for the characters, so I wanted to motivate emotion by helping them mine the experiences of their characters and not themselves.

You mentioned at the premiere that you were working from floor plans that were actually from Cabrini-Green in designing the sets. What was it like for you walking into that space?

When I first stepped onto the set, I broke out into tears because it was so much like what it was in the photos. Merje Veski, our production designer, had all these photographic references of Cabrini-Green. Everything from the ’70s through the ’90s to all the when they were demolished and she really wanted to make it look like exactly what it was. She had just come off creating this set of a working restaurant for “The Bear” and I just [thought, “That looks like a real restaurant to me. And I knew that she had that incredible attention to detail. She did all this research and she also sought out a blueprint of a high rise in Cabrini-Green, so when we made our layout of these two apartments next to each other, it was exactly like that with the exception enlarging them slightly so we could have space for the camera. It was all very carefully researched to the point where when we had Annette come to set, she was just astonished at how accurate it was. She was like, “This is exactly what it was like.” And it was incredible.

When Chicago has been painted in the national media as a place with a lot of gun violence, was there anything that shaped how you wanted to portray it from how you know the city is seen now?

I went into the process knowing couple of things would emerge from this. One is that the movie is just one perspective into Cabrini-Green through the eyes of these kids. It was never going to represent the full picture of what it was like to live in Cabrini-Green at the time. There’s so many wonderful documentaries and secondary sources like Ben Austen’s book “High Risers,” which is great at capturing the rise and fall of Cabrini-Green from its inception to when it was demolished, and what I wanted in this movie was to explore a different perspective through these kids and what they loved about this place and really focus in on this very personal relationship between them and them learning to say goodbye to each other.

The other piece of it was I did feel that it is it is important to acknowledge there are external forces happening outside the high-rises. There’s systemic racism, there’s gun violence, there’s things that are outside of the control of these kids and that that definitely exists and I didn’t want to ignore that completely either. I wanted to make sure that we grounded it in in this real place. These things actually happened, so it was a balancing act for me and I don’t know that I think it was counter programming [the current national narrative], but it wasn’t like I was intentionally going in [being] responsive to it. It was a response to what I was learning from speaking to people who lived in Cabrini-Green.

It seems like you’ve found your people in Chicago after being away for a while and I know there’s so much pressure to move to Los Angeles or New York to have a career in the arts. What was being able to make something in your hometown like?

The process of making this movie was life-changing for me because it required returning home a second time after I’d moved to L.A. The first was when I went to make “Hala” and this was the second, and in that time, I had been processing my father’s death, and re-establishing my relationship with the city was really difficult because it didn’t feel the same as when I grew up [there]. Understanding what home meant to me was the process of making “We Grown Now” and by the end of it, it transformed me. I felt that moving forward into the future in my life, what I want to cultivate and nourish is the people — that’s home for me. The community of people who I love and love me. That’s something that I don’t think I’d lost [exactly] as I was traveling and living in other places, but I was able to like go back to Chicago and really feel a sense of home there.

“We Grown Now” opens on April 19th in Los Angeles at the AMC Century City and the Cinemark Baldwin Hills Crenshaw and in New York at the AMC Lincoln Square 13 and the AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9. It will expand nationwide on April 26th and you can find your local theater where it’s playing here.

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