“I wanted to make a film that touched on and was able to articulate a lot of private conversations I had in my mind and with people close to me about things that were happening in the world, but I didn’t want it to be fucking boring,” Mo McRae said after a screening of his debut feature “A Lot of Nothing” last fall, wasting no time with pleasantries just as he did in the explosive dark satire he made. The film’s bravura opening that sweeps you up in the desire to do something in the wake of hearing of some horrific injustice — in this case, a cop (Justin Hartley) that killed a child while on patrol in what is suspected to be a racial profiling incident — though paralyzed to think of what exactly that is as Vanessa (Cleopatra Coleman) and James (Y’lan Noel) pace around for the better part of 20 minutes in a completely unbroken take, wondering whether a post in social media will suffice or there is something more.
The swirling camera might as well be inside the pit of your stomach, and as anxiety inducing as it might be for an audience, it was initially a challenge thrown down by the music video legend Paul Hunter when McCrae first conceived of the idea for “A Lot of Nothing,” surely one of the more misleading titles in recent memory when the filmmaker doesn’t shrink from the enormity of the social issues at hand. He never flinched from the technical demands either when the intricately choreographed scene inside Vanessa and James’ luxurious home made the jump from short to feature, meaning he’d have to pull it off all over again, though coming from an acting background himself, he knew he just had to have confidence in the actors and the idea itself — reflecting formally the back-and-forth conversation he wanted to have, where in spite of the heat of the moment, the real heavy lifting comes in the quieter aftermath.
It turns out there’s less distance between James and Vanessa and the situation they tie themselves into knots about, put in an even greater squeeze when they realize the cop in question is their next door neighbor and the compulsion to act gets the better of them at an inopportune time, making plans as James’ brother (Shamier Anderson) and his pregnant wife (Lex Scott Davis) are expecting a quiet dinner. There’s no such luck when things go awry and all involved are confronted with preconceptions based on race and identity that they all thought they had probably put behind them, living in a tony neighborhood in Los Angeles, and “A Lot of Nothing” ends up hitting audiences right where they live, no matter where they’re from. After premiering last spring at SXSW, the talk of the festival circuit is now extending that conversation with its release in theaters and on VOD and McCrae spoke about the leap from being in front of the camera to behind it, tackling such controversial subject matter and coming back stronger after the production was shut down initially because of the pandemic lockdown.
Had the directing bug with been with you for a while? Or was it something that you developed working as an actor?
I don’t think I consciously knew I wanted to direct, but now that I direct, I understand the foundational interest had been brewing for quite some time. Not until my acting career began to blossom and bloom was I then afforded the opportunity to realize this desire was actually in directing. [“A Lot of Nothing”] actually started as a short film first, and then the short film got such a great response from people, my agency CAA was just like, “You should make this a feature film.” And then all the journey began from there.
Was it difficult to come up with a scenario to have the kind of conversation that you wanted to create with this film?
The scenario was actually maybe the easiest part, but it was challenging figuring out how to make it all come together, really [following] the characters in their journeys and [building] the layers on a micro and macro-level approach. Once these amazing, talented actors started inhabiting, it was just like, “Oh, this is a whole another ballgame because everybody brought so many interesting nuances, and specific points of views, and feelings, and emotions.” It just exceeded anything I could have dreamt of once these talented actors and these great crew got together.
When you have that acting background, is there anything that you like to give to your actors that you might want yourself from a director?
Freedom. That’s a big thing. Freedom and information. And these actors, all the way down that call sheet, were so great. It didn’t require a bunch of cajoling or hand-holding. It was really a matter of me arming them with the necessary information, and then they could make the choices and be free to bring these things to life.
It seemed like you really connected to them with the camera, and yet you have this very distinctive visual language of this. What was it like to figure out?
I let the story determined the visual language because of the humor and the intensity [of it], so just depending on what was happening, that was just the best thing to articulate the intention of the scene visually. I’m really obsessive about photography and framing, and images, so the cinematographer John Rosario, who did majority of the film, and then John King, who did the portion before the pandemic, we just spent a lot of time trying to understand just the psychology of framing, and how to use that to convey and put the audience in a state that made us susceptible to the emotional journeys of the film.
Did you have a house in mind for filming in?
The house was a pain in the ass. It was a real location, and people didn’t want us to shoot there in the neighborhood. But during location scouting, looking at a bunch of different homes, when I saw that house, it was just perfect for the layout that was in my mind. It was almost like I wrote the script to that house. I love it for the film, but in terms of my life, it was a pain in the ass.
What was it like getting that long opening take in the can? I understand there might’ve been tears after.
Yeah, it was one of those transcendent moments where all your dream comes together because it started as a short film that I made a 2017 or ’18 and from that, to actually doing it for the feature film, and accomplishing it, it was a beautiful moment and the performances were just so incredible, it was emotional for sure.
You alluded to being shut down by the pandemic. Logistically, that must be crushing, but did it give you time to reflect on what you were doing?
I got afforded the rare opportunity to make my first movie twice, and for that, as depressing and as stressful as it was during the time, I am thankful that that happened. That I was making my movie, left, lived some life, and things went crazy in the world. I grew as a man, as an artist, and got to bring that back to making the same movie. Not many people get the opportunity to make their first movie twice.
What’s it like to be getting the film out into the world now?
It’s been incredible. As an artist, you want nothing more than to share your art with the world and have it resonate people because essentially, I’m sharing my soul. This is my heart, this is my soul, the soul of everyone involved, and we are giving that to people like, “Hey, what do you think?” Then the response has been really beautiful and favorable, and encouraging, so I hope ultimately everything that I do inspires that next artist to be bold and to fulfill their dream of sharing their art.
“A Lot of Nothing” opens on February 3rd in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7 and in New York at the Cinema Village. It is also available to rent via Google Play, Amazon, and Redbox.